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Comment: Striving to find solutions for the Salt Spring housing crisis

An aerial view of Salt Spring Island. TOURISM B.C.

A commentary by the general manager of the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, and a second-generation member of the family that owns it. He also volunteers on both Salt Spring’s Housing Action Program Task Force and its Community Economic Sustainability Commission, though his opinions are his own.

Are there two islands called Salt Spring in the Salish Sea?

Some residents are likely wondering after “Salt Spring housing policies bode ill for the island’s future,” Frants Attorp’s Dec. 1 commentary. That other island must not be amid an employment and housing shortage that had our hospital turning away patients.

Now we are being forced to grapple with the dilemma of staffing that hospital or turning the most vulnerable members of our community onto the street. Perhaps it is to this other Salt Spring, where halting unwanted change is as easy as doing nothing, that Attorp’s article applies.

As I grew up, I learned how fortunate I am to live here during school trips on the ferry: I remember looking out our bus windows, enjoying the view and noticing the commuters also travelling for the day. Those passengers preferred a several-hour daily trip than living closer to their jobs.

Now it is in the opposite direction that commuters journey. The housing shortage is a crisis that my family’s business (as well as the island’s other businesses) experiences first-hand.

We have three staff members that are desperately in need of accommodation. Over the 25 years that we have been in business, it is not an unusual problem to have employees searching for homes, but for three of them at once to be unable to find housing in December is unprecedented.

Other businesses are building or bringing in temporary structures for their workers. It puts our community in a difficult predicament. Companies are becoming both people’s employer and landlord. The alternative, where employees commute from off island, is similarly unpalatable.

Most of the people that live here, and cherish, Salt Spring Island understand that our rural character is intertwined, dependent and enriched by our connection with nature, but there is more to our community than just nature.

We have artists, farmers, winemakers, bakers, a brewery, jewellers, galleries and many other small businesses and community organizations. Those companies will be compelled to leave the island.

The few truly essential businesses that remain will be forced to raise prices to maintain an uncomfortable balance of just competitive enough wages to entice workers to commute here, but not enough for those workers to live here.

That is the reality of Attorp’s vision: an island with privileged elites that own houses, and second-class citizens to serve them, while only participating in the community to the extent they work here and drive to and from the ferry.

The other enterprises, as well as the activities and dynamism that they create, will be lost. We all care about where we live, and Salt Spring Islanders are no different, so I am sure that it is not Attorp’s intention to create such a community.

However, the stated objectives of our laws, regulations and bylaws are often contrary to the results that they bring.

As the world, our technology, demographics and economy changes, the consequences of those rules also change. We cannot preserve anything in our society exactly as it once was. All we can do is shape (and ideally improve) things as they change. To keep the essence that is most important to us, we must also adapt.

I am grateful that our local trustees adopted the resolutions that the Housing Action Program Task Force proposed, and that they do have compassion for the families and individuals that are losing their homes.

I don’t know of anyone — on or off that committee — who thinks that those proposals are the ideal solution. They are instead the result of protracted inaction.

This Task Force, created by the Islands Trust, is a diverse group of Salt Spring residents volunteering to find the best ways to protect the ecology of our island, while allowing a thriving collective of people to live here too.

Other members of our community that believe our island needs homes for the families that work here, should support effective solutions to our housing crisis, especially by encouraging our trustees that voted in favour of those proposals.

The Islands Trust has a “Contact Us” section on their webpage with the appropriate ways to do just that.