An example of unregulated housing on Denman Island. Photo supplied by the Denman Housing Association.

Housing crisis amplified on Denman Island

High home and rental prices and a shortage of housing stock have led to island-wide struggles

In 2016, a Denman Island resident who goes by the name of C was asked to leave her home by her landlord.

With nowhere to turn, she found herself living in a travel trailer on her friend’s property.

The 53-year-old, who has been living on Denman Island for 11 years and raised two children there, said the trailer had no toilet and no heating.

“A friend of mine graciously allowed me to put it on her land and stay there for five months,” recalled C. “She actually built me an outhouse so I could have a toilet.

“Luckily I had an extension cord that went to her house, so I had a little plug-in heater, thank goodness.”

C’s story is relatively common on Denman. While housing problems on the main part of Vancouver Island are well-documented, the Gulf Islands have experienced their own set of challenges related to availability and affordability. Housing issues on the Gulf Islands are amplified due to their size, isolation, rural culture, and housing regulations.

C, who has moved five times since living on Denman Island, said there are very few rental units available and “lots of people looking for them.”

“Also, house and land prices have skyrocketed, so anyone who may have been in the lower market getting in, now things are way too out of reach,” she said.

With a median personal income of under $25,000, many Denman Islanders are struggling to find — and afford —places to live.

“The lower echelons are sort of getting pushed out,” said C.

Substandard housing conditions

The quality of rental units on Denman is also a concern, according to C. She does home visits for a living and said she has seen multiple examples of poor housing conditions experienced by her peers.

Like C was doing in 2016, several people on Denman Island squat in unregulated or illegal units, including trailers and shacks on their neighbours’ or friends’ properties.

“I’ve seen everything from places that were impossible to heat, places that were rodent-infested, bad plumbing, electric heat that was expensive,” she said. “There are so many different things you can’t always anticipate when you’re moving into a place.

“And…when you do get a rental place, you pretty much take it regardless, because there are so few of them and there are so many people vying for them.”

An island-wide issue

In 2013, the Denman Housing Association (DHA) commissioned a needs assessment to determine the prevalence of housing-related issues on the island.

The DHA surveyed 146 people, which was about 14 per cent of Denman’s population at the time. Seventeen per cent of the island’s households were surveyed.

DHA chairman and president Simon Palmer said the survey’s most alarming finding was that 90 per cent of rental units were “inadequate” in some way, whether it was due to a lack of electricity, running water, rental security, or adequate space.

Denman Housing Association president Simon Palmer. Photo by Scott Strasser.

The DHA estimates that at least 120 people across the island were living in substandard rental housing in 2013 — 20 of whom were children.

“And this is on an island with a population of 1,000 people. In other words, over 10 per cent of the community is living in substandard or unaffordable rental housing, or both,” said Palmer.

Ten per cent of survey respondents reported they did not have a heating source. Sixty-four per cent reported they paid more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, and 34 per cent reported lacking one or more critical amenities, such as electricity, running water, or an indoor toilet, in their homes.

Though the data is now five years old, Palmer believes housing problems have only exacerbated since 2013.

Islands Trust — the local governing authority for Denman Island — is conducting another housing needs assessment this year. Denman Island trustee Laura Busheikin, who is also the vice-chair for Islands Trust council, said the results are currently under review and should be published soon.

While choosing to “live off the grid” could play a factor for some Denman residents’ living conditions, Busheikin said most residents looking for an alternative lifestyle still want safe and secure housing.

“I know there’s a huge number of people who are upset with their housing options and people who have left the island because of housing options,” she said. “Some people are happy to live off-grid, but off-grid for most people still means you have a viable alternative. You have solar panels. Maybe you don’t have normal plumbing but you have a good composting toilet.

“There’s a way to live, to choose an alternative lifestyle and still feel you have stability, a reasonable level of comfort, and health and safety in your life,” she continued.

Busheikin, Palmer, and many other people on Denman Island agree there is a clear need for affordable housing on the island.

Tight regulations, land scarcity

Denman Island’s lack of affordable housing is “chiefly a zoning problem, which has resulted in high land values,” according to Palmer. Islands Trust’s land use bylaw only allows for one single-family dwelling per four hectares (9.8 acres) on Residential-2 (R2) land.

The tight regulations and density cap on Denman Island aim to preserve the islands’ environmental condition and protect freshwater sources. They also help maintain the small island’s rural character.

“Islands Trust is wonderful because it keeps things from becoming over-developed,” said C. “It keeps things like Starbucks from coming here.

“But it can also make things more difficult for people who want to supply more housing.”

There is also the issue of land scarcity. Much of the island is devoted to parks or conservation, and large chunks of private land are only used intermittently.

Pale green refers to ALR land. Image supplied by the Denman Housing Association.

Furthermore, over 40 per cent of Denman Island is on the Agricultural Land Reserve, which restricts residential development to one single-family dwelling per 15 hectares.

Palmer said developing affordable housing on Denman Island would be easier — and cheaper — if the regulations were more urban.

“But that’s not the way it is on the islands,” he said. “And I understand it completely. It’s part of the reason I moved here — to have low density, no traffic jams, lots of space and clear air.

“That’s the price you pay.”

Busheikin said Islands Trust does have policies that provide a “regulatory pathway” for implementing affordable housing projects, through a legal contract known as a housing agreement.

“I think our regulations very clearly offer exceptions for community needs… to bypass that density cap,” she said. “I think that density cap is good in many ways so we don’t have runaway development, timeshares, apartment buildings and that kind of thing.

“We can’t just say ‘sure, we know the housing need, just start building’.”

Affordable housing project still in early stages

In the midst of these housing challenges, a cluster of 20 affordable housing units should soon be coming to Denman Island.

The DHA is planning a $6-7 million affordable housing initiative called Denman Green. When completed, the carbon-neutral project will bring 20 one, two, or three-bedroom units to a 20-acre plot of land located near the Coho Landing on central Denman Island.

Palmer said it took nearly five years for the DHA to obtain land for the project. The association saw a breakthrough last year when two friends of the DHA bought 73 acres of R2 land on Denman, and said they did not intend to build their maximum permitted number of dwellings. They decided to give part of the land to the DHA for Denman Green, instead.

The land — which Palmer says is “a 10-minute walk from the village and the community school” — is being transferred to the DHA this year. The area still needs to be cleared of trees and foliage.

On another positive note, Palmer said BC Housing invited the DHA to apply for project development funding earlier this month. He said the expectation is that funding for the project would come through in the first week of June.

“That would enable us to drill for water, prove septic permeability, apply to Islands Trust for rezoning, do other stuff like environmental assessments and Ministry of Transportation requirements for subdivision and all that sort of stuff,” he said.

Palmer hopes for construction to start in 12–14 months and for initial occupancy of the residences by October 2019. He said there are already 37 names on a list of prospective tenants.

“When we get the rezoning from Islands Trust — which is a lengthy procedure — we will be in a position to start clearing the land and building,” he said, adding Vancouver-based architects have already drawn up the designs for the units.

Residents such as C believe the Denman Green project will help take some pressure off of islanders who are struggling with housing.

“I think it will pave the way for other projects to happen that are similar,” she said.

Though he believes the project will only put a dent in the island’s housing problems, Palmer says initiatives like Denman Green are vital to maintaining the small rural community’s economic sustainability.

“As the island ages, it is ever more important that our younger generation has the housing and economic stability to make Denman their home,” he said.

For more information on Denman Green, visit bit.ly/2HzvtHg

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