ASK Salt Spring explores housing with the team from Dragonfly Commons not-for-profit housing project
Sixteen joined this ASK Salt Spring gathering for fascinating discussion of Workforce Housing led by special guests Tami and Fernando dos Santos and Rhonan Heitzmann. After our Territorial Acknowledgement, they began by speaking about their challenges and successes addressing Salt Spring’s dearth of worker housing.
Fernando and Tami have established the not-for-profit Dragonfly Commons to provide home ownership for 30 families. On their ten acres, they will build 30 small homes, approximately 400 square feet for a one bedroom, 600 square feet for a two bedroom, and 800 square feet for a three bedroom, with selling prices estimated at between $300,000 – $500,000.
Begun years ago, it had been the dos Santos’ hope to build less expensive homes that could be purchased by those with an income of $20-30 an hour; now, those qualifying to purchase homes at Dragonfly Commons will need an income (combined if there are two working adults) of a daunting $60-100 an hour. Sadly, this home ownership option once envisioned for our service workers will now likely only be affordable for the middle managers in our workforce. Despite these increasing prices, Dragonfly Commons will still offer home ownership for 30 families at a cost far below the market.
Rhonan, chair of the Islands Trust Housing Task Force, grew up on Salt Spring and fulfilled a dream by returning to raise his family here. He was soon clear that housing for a middle income family was almost impossible to acquire. Lucky and skilled, he was able to buy and renovate a 1965 small home (that should actually have been demolished) to create a home for his family. His recognition that few have his building skills nor the money to purchase even a decrepit home has spurred him to spend an enormous amount of time seeking housing solutions for Salt Spring while also managing his own business.
He began by offering us some definitions: We learned that most mistakenly equate affordable housing with subsidized housing, accommodations for those with the lowest incomes. Actually, affordable housing is a sliding scale, defined by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) as housing that requires 30% or less of a family unit’s gross household income.
Using this official definition, housing for a family earning $200,000 a year will be significantly different from housing for a family earning $20,000 a year. Despite this wide disparity, both are still categorized as affordable housing. Clearly, affordable housing includes a very wide spectrum of our housing needs on Salt Spring.
Traditionally, families earning moderate and higher incomes were able to purchase housing. Today, that option only rarely exists on Salt Spring. With almost no homes to purchase with an income under $200,000 and rentals that are also largely unavailable, too many of these families are leaving our community. And, according to Rhonan, without decisive action, this problem will only increase, soon leaving us without the workers we need to function as a community.
An encouraging solution to this complex problem, Dragonfly Commons has struggled. Only now – after years of challenges and many disappointments – the dos Santos’s are nearly ready to go to the Islands Trust for the subdivision zoning it needs to proceed.
Water has been Dragonfly Commons’s biggest challenge. Despite the North Salt Spring Waterworks District’s (NSSWD) moratorium on new hookups, Dragonfly Commons is blessed with plentiful well water. While good news, challenges have centered on the provincial requirement that all privately-owned water hookups of four or more homes must become its own water utility. Requiring a never-returned deposit of between $500,000 – $2 million, Fernando and Tami have spent many years seeking another entity to own their water system and avoid the daunting deposit.
Disappointingly, after years of negotiations, NSSWD has finally concluded that, given the many challenges it also faces, it cannot own the Dragonfly Commons water system. Recently, the dos Santos approached CRD to see if they would like to take ownership of their water system. Happily, it appears that CRD seems prepared to own and manage the system, charging, in Fernando’s opinion, a very reasonable annual rate. While still awaiting the formal confirmation of this agreement, Tami and Fernando are cautiously optimistic that a solution has finally been found. Dragonfly Commons will pay all the costs of building this system; CRD will own and manage it once completed. While a big win for Dragonfly Commons, CRD is also acquiring a cost-free, new water system that nets an annual fee while likely remaining largely maintenance-free for a number of years.
With conformation of this agreement with CRD, Dragonfly Commons will apply for a Common Strata zoning (not requiring Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) approval) that it needs to proceed. This zoning will have a Housing Agreement that will prevent speculation by tying assessed value to cost of living.
Had MoTI approval been required for this subdivision, Dragonfly Commons would have likely been required to pay for improvements to Drake Road. Good news for Dragonfly Commons, as paying for these improvements would push costs for prospective buyers even further out of reach, Fernando is still concerned about the condition of Drake Road. He reminded us that this already-overused road would soon also accommodate 30 Dragonfly Commons families and 28 in the Drake Road Supportive Housing project. Fernando asked what would be done to improve Drake Road. With no answers yet, it was suggested that Fernando work with the CRD Transportation Commission to determine needed improvements and strategies to get them completed.
Rhonan spoke with passion about the need for an Islands Trust-wide Housing Authority to oversee Housing Agreements as well as proactive actions such as seeking funding and purchasing land for future housing projects. With Islands Trust support for such a Housing Authority, he is hopeful that the province will support its establishment. (Want to know more? Our MLA, Adam Olsen, will be ASK Salt Spring’s special guest next Friday, September 2, 11-1, in the United Church Meadow.)
Rhonan also suggested that a housing expert focused on local solutions was desperately-needed. Logically, this expert should support the Housing Council to move initiatives forward. We learned that the members of this Housing Council are our local can-do housing experts. Unfortunately, so consumed with completing underway housing projects, none of these professionals have the time to focus on other initiatives, often not even having the time to attend meetings. Agreement among these ASK Salt Spring participants was that the Housing Council should be given the money needed to hire an expert to focus on pursuing local housing opportunities. While the list of housing successes that could be achieved by this expert was long, among the items high on this list were:
Development of a support system for renters and landlords so that more Salt Springers would be comfortable renting;
Establishment of a Land Bank with a reserve of donated funding ready to purchase appropriate affordable housing properties as soon as they appear;
Proactive advocacy for the establishment of a Housing Authority;
Strategic identification and submittal of housing grant applications;
Collaboration with partners to streamline regulations that interfere with low-impact housing , such as potable water catchment;
Development of effective partnerships with funding entities, such as CRD Housing;
Advocacy for inclusion in the Speculation and Vacancy Tax;
And, the list goes on. . . .
Rhonan and Fernando agreed that there are many amazing conversations concerning housing on Salt Spring. They have hope for the Islands Trust housing conversations, believing that the protection of our unique islands area may require more authority for the Islands Trust. They support the request for a provincial review of the almost half century-old Islands Trust Act. They hope that the province will soon recognize that protecting our islands – while also maintaining a healthy community balance – requires both provincial funding and action.
As 1:00 approached, our guests were asked for their top two suggestions to begin addressing our serious housing challenges.
They agreed that communications among all levels of government – both staff and elected decision-makers – was essential. They were pleased to learn that Electoral Director Gary Holman has already convened such an interagency working group and, if elected, is committed to holding regular meetings of this group. They also agreed that the Housing Council needs the funding for a full-time housing expert to identify opportunities, seek funding, and partner to implement them.
Our time together too-soon over, some helped pack up chairs while the most eager stayed to continue to seek solutions. We all thanked Tami, Fernando, and Rhonan for leading such a fascinating conversation, sharing their vision for a housing-rich community, and working so very hard to turn these visions into reality. (Thank you, Tami, Fernando, and Rhonan!)