Housing has become a critical issue on the coast, and local governments are under increasing pressure to Do Something. The trouble is, do what? I don’t have the answer, but I can certainly describe the mess we’re in.
I want to start by point out that there is very little purpose built rental housing on the Sunshine Coast and virtually none in the rural areas. The majority of renters have always relied on the private market: renting houses, basement suites, coach houses and secondary dwellings such as cabins from individual home owners.
Recently that supply has dried up as soaring real estate prices collide with a perfect storm of other factors, such as:
- Housing has become an investment vehicle. Its value is no longer related to its purpose as housing or to average earnings. With interest rates at record lows for over a decade, it’s no surprise that ordinary Canadians as well as global corporations have snapped up real estate for investment.
- As property assessments have skyrocketed, so have rents.
- There’s money to be made building luxury homes (and there’s a big market for them) so that’s the overwhelming majority of what’s being built on the coast. Also, building costs have soared.
- The federal government stopped investing in housing programs decades ago.
- The affordability crunch was already underway when Covid fuelled a dramatic exodus from the large cities to rural areas, with people buying up properties and displacing long time renters.
- There’s also a demographic turnover beginning as Boomers start to downsize or move off coast.
- And finally there’s the huge growth in short term rentals.
Local government doesn’t build housing. Here’s a few reasons why.
- We don’t have the money. As just one example, the Town of Gibsons’ annual operating budget is less than $8 million in a market where the average house sells for almost $1 million. Do the math.
- Most local governments don’t have land to donate. The SCRD owns the land under our Field Road office and some parks and that’s about it.
- It’s both impractical and unfair to fund housing from property taxes, which are a regressive form of taxation (not income based). SCRD residents have already seen significant tax increases and we’re facing huge bills for water, garbage and fire protection, just to name three.
- The regional district has no Housing service. That means we can’t spend money on housing without first getting voter approval for a new service which is, frankly, unlikely.
What can the SCRD do?
- We can regulate. The SCRD is updating our (very old) zoning bylaw to make it easier for property owners to provide secondary suites and auxiliary dwellings. We hope to have the new bylaw passed this fall. Updates to Official Community Plans will come next.
- We can relax bylaw enforcement around housing, e.g. secondary suites and RVs. That’s already been the case for several years, to avoid displacing people who have nowhere else to go. Only the most serious health and safety violations are being actively pursued.
- We can work with community groups. I meet with the SC Affordable Housing Society and sit on the Housing Emergency steering committee (a group of local government and nonprofits). We’ve been able to get funding to hire a Housing Program Manager to develop housing options; more to come on this.
- We can advocate with senior government for more funding and support. All the local governments are doing this. Right now we’ve formed task group of local electeds looking at how we can get a vacancy and speculation tax for the Sunshine Coast.
Is that enough?
No. It’s nowhere near enough for the scale of the crisis we’re facing. People are losing their homes and having to leave the coast, or live in cars and tents. Businesses and the public sector can’t get employees because there’s nowhere to live. (Ironically, Rain City Housing can’t open up more accommodation for homeless people because they can’t hire staff because there’s no housing.) A lot of people are frustrated and angry and I get that.
I wish I had a magic bullet. I don’t. I’m open to ideas and creative solutions.