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Hotel at centre of tug of war amid Salt Spring housing crisis

Hotel being used to house people who used to live on streets and in the bush; hospital wants to buy it to house staff

On Salt Spring Island, where housing has always been scarce, a small, aging hotel is at the centre of a crisis.

Salt Spring Island Community Services desperately needs the 18-room Seabreeze Inne to continue housing the 20 vulnerable people who came out of tents in the bush and off the streets during the pandemic.

But the Island’s only hospital, Lady Minto, wants the Seabreeze to house its staff, as it struggles to fill 31 vacant positions — everything from cleaning staff and cooks to technicians and nurses — on an island where vacant housing is “simply non-existent.”

B.C. Housing has been renting the hotel’s rooms on a three-month basis since the start of COVID, but the deal expires Dec. 31, and Seabreeze owner Bob Ma has decided to sell.

The province has not put in a bid to buy the Seabreeze, as it has done with three hotels in Victoria. So the Lady Minto Hospital Foundation stepped in, offering to purchase the Seabreeze for $4 million to address its urgent need to add staff to help protect its current workforce from “burnout” and keep the hotel as a community housing asset. The hotel’s owner has also considered offers to sell it to hotel operators.

“It’s at a tipping point in terms of staff,” said Roberta Martell, executive director of the Lady Minto Hospital Foundation. “A person ends their shift and there’s no one to take over. Some stay. Some come in on their days off. But there’s burnout and some quit and that should be a concern for everyone on Salt Spring Island.”

The island has a population of about 12,000, which swells by the thousands during the summer season. The hospital also serves surrounding Gulf Islands.

Martell said the sale depends on inspections and approval from the foundation’s membership to pull about $2.5 million from its endowment fund, and a fundraising campaign to raise an equal amount or higher to complete the purchase plus repairs and remodelling. Martell said the foundation waited for Salt Spring Community Services to make the first move to buy. She said it has also extended the potential signing agreement into the middle of February, hoping it will give the province and Community Services time to find alternative spaces.

She said the foundation has been meeting with B.C. Housing, Community Services, politicians and Islands Trust representatives about what role it could play in transitioning the Seabreeze.

Rob Grant, executive director of Salt Spring Community Services, accused B.C. Housing of dropping the ball. “[B.C. Housing] has been aware of this for more than year, ” Grant said. “We knew this was a train wreck coming. They sat on their hands.”

Community Services has had about 20 residents in the Seabreeze for more than a year, paying the owner between $1,200 and $1,600 a month for each room, some with kitchens.

Grant said they expected B.C. Housing to continue to provide shelter spaces, as it did in Victoria when Mayor Lisa Helps declared everyone would be sheltered during the pandemic. “But now it will be back to the streets without housing,” he said.

Salt Spring’s original shelter in Ganges is full with a waiting list.

The Capital Regional District owns land on Drake Road, between an affordable housing development and an elementary school, that islanders say would be a good site for the hospital foundation’s housing plans.

“There is the potential of a win-win situation if the hospital foundation were to consider the CRD property, which is already zoned for multi-family housing and has adequate water supply for over 30 units,” Salt Spring Island resident Hannah Brown said in an email. “This property is better suited to hospital staff housing and can provide more units than the Seabreeze.”

But Martell said the foundation has neither the funds nor expertise in building housing.

B.C. Housing said it recognizes there is a need for safe and secure housing for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness on Salt Spring Island.

“We are currently exploring options and doing our due diligence to determine the most appropriate and cost-effective solution for the community to ensure no one is displaced.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com