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Salt Spring hospital hopes to cure hiring woes by providing rental housing for staff

Lady Minto Hospital Foundation has purchased a hotel and will convert it to rental housing for employees.
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Lady Minto Hospital Foundation director Brenda McEachern, left, hands the keys to the Seabreeze Inn to Vancouver Island Health Authority site director Sara Gogo. The foundation plans to convert the Seabreeze’s 28 rooms into 14 to 20 rental apartments for staff, from nurses to cleaners. BRUCE CAMERON

The waiting room at Lady Minto Hospital on Salt Spring Island erupted in cheers Monday afternoon as the hospital’s foundation took possession of a former hotel that is expected to be transformed into much-needed employee housing by next year.

The only hospital in the Southern Gulf Islands, Lady Minto has been struggling to fill 35 vacant positions — everything from cleaning staff and cooks to technicians and nurses — on an island where any type of housing is extremely scarce.

Conditions on the sale of the Seabreeze Inne near Ganges were removed Feb. 28 and the hospital foundation’s $4-million purchase of the hotel from owner Bob Ma was completed with a “key drop” ceremony.

The foundation raised $5.6 million, including $2.5 million from its endowment fund, to cover both the purchase price and renovation costs.

Renovations are expected to begin in the fall, pending approvals and permits, and design work has started with architects Don Brown and Andrew Jost of the Jensen Group.

The hospital foundation plans to convert the Seabreeze’s 28 rooms into 14 to 20 rental apartments for staff. Lady Minto believes the property will be “a key recruitment tool” to attract and retain staff, so existing staff don’t have to take extra shifts and risk burnout.

Lady Minto Hospital Foundation board chair Dave Taylor lauded Salt Spring Islanders’ support in fundraising “that has strengthened our foundation to the point where we can make this type of strategic investment to address the housing crunch we face for staff.”

The foundation has launched other initiatives to boost the numbers of places to rent for hospital employees, including online portals for residents to list vacation rentals, cabins and basement suites.

The timing of the deal also clears up some of the negative perceptions of the foundation buying the Seabreeze Inne, which has been used to house more than 20 of the island’s homeless population.

Roberta Martell, executive director of the Lady Minto Hospital Foundation, said a lease has been negotiated with B.C. Housing to continue sheltering existing residents while the province assembles permanent supportive housing on Drake Road.

The foundation had delayed the closing of the Seabreeze deal several times to give the province time to find alternative housing for the residents.

Salt Spring Island Community Services had wanted to purchase the Seabreeze with funding from B.C. Housing, but the government agency opted not to buy the property after renting it on three-month contracts since the pandemic began. That’s when the hospital foundation made its offer to purchase.

Now, B.C. Housing is planning to build permanent housing for the vulnerable in the form of pre-fabricated modules that will be moved onto the site at 161 Drake Rd. site for quick assembly.

In a statement, B.C. Housing said the development will provide long-term housing to many of the people currently living in the Seabreeze Inne and those sleeping on mats at the In from the Cold shelter at 268 Fulford-Ganges Rd.

It will have 28 modular units, which is not enough to house everyone at the Seabreeze Inne and the In from the Cold shelter.

“We will work closely with people to identify their individual needs,” the statement said. “The most vulnerable will be offered places at 161 Drake Road and we will work to find other housing solutions for those who require fewer supports. We are committed to ensuring that no one ends up back on the streets.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com

Note to readers: This story has been corrected. Bob Ma is the former owner of the Seabreeze Inne. His name was wrong in a previous version of this story.