Last summer, Riane da Silva and her 11-year-old found themselves needing to find a new home on Denman Island.
Their landlords were in a position of having to evict them, as bylaw enforcement for Islands Trust was responding to some of the properties on the island where people were living illegally.
That there is a housing shortage on Denman, like many communities, comes as no surprise. Da Silva was stunned by the turn of events though, which left her and others in a position with no place to go.
On Jan. 19, the three-person Local Trust Committee for Denman reconsidered a resolution over enforcement, in part a response to da Silva’s comments earlier in the meeting. While Denman is in the Comox Valley Regional District, the committee, part of the Islands Trust, actually oversees land use decisions.
Da Silva told the committee that in July 2020, nine individuals and families were faced with evictions because of enforcement of illegal dwellings, calling the actions ‘unsettling’ and ‘traumatic.’ She did move in September, though for most of her 24 years on Denman, she has lived in illegal rental housing.
In response to her, trustee David Critchley said he was not familiar with the circumstances around the evictions last summer, and while there is a need for more housing, he expressed concerns about illegal dwellings, suggesting the committee had to be careful about not enforcing current property regulations by condoning illegal settlements.
“I think it kind of guts our bylaws,” he said. “It opens things up much too broadly.”
Trustee Laura Busheikin later proposed reconsidering some of the wording in a resolution over enforcement, known as DE-2019-056. She said she had met with the new bylaw manager to discuss the wording’s intent, as a way to provide some type of relief for people potentially facing eviction, especially during the current pandemic.
“These people don’t necessarily have other places to go,” she said.
She formed a motion that will hold off enforcement at properties with only one additional housing set up, assuming there are no health and safety concerns such as water and septic disposal or issues related to properties in development permit areas. Staff suggested to be legal, the committee needs to clarify this is only a temporary measure, so Busheikin proposed a one-year timeline. She said later on that fines are not used on Denman for housing infractions, but in a situation where a ticket is issued, the unlawful use is typically resolved by stopping the use, obtaining an appropriate permit or modifying land use to conform to bylaws.
Though Da Silva is now in a more settled situation, she knows many others are not but not in position to talk about the issue. She has been long been an advocate for more housing on the island.
“Most renters don’t speak out, but I do,” she said.
The housing situation on Denman is complicated, she says, as a variety of people live in different ways, as work and renting arrangements have evolved around this. Dismantling these overnight is only adding more pressure to an already limited supply. As Busheikin pointed out during the meeting, as far as she knew, there was only one property on Denman that includes a house that could be purchased for less than $1 million, and if buyers have little choice, renters face a pressing situation.
“It’s a long, slow road to get any kind of affordable housing happening,” she said.
While there are housing initiatives for the island, there is much uncertainty for people whose options are already limited. The recent committee decision does not affect properties that might have more than one extra housing set up, and for the sites that do get a reprieve in the meantime, this comes with an end date of a year, which in da Silva’s view, is not much time for Denman to solve its housing shortage.