An audience watching a screen, on which a woman is talking

Cortes Island’s First Housing Forum

About 100 people came together for Cortes Island’s first Housing Forum on Saturday, December 2, in Mansons Hall.   

There were break-out sessions devoted to tiny homes, rental housing, short term rentals, worker housing, empty homes, landlord-tenant relations, home upgrades and making land and home ownership more affordable. A session devoted to environmental issues was added at the last minute. 

The Forum began with opening addresses by Regional Director Mark Vonesch and Sadhu Johnston, Executive Director of the Cortes Community Housing Society.  

Image credit: Suzanne Fletcher

Vonesch pointed to some statistics in a slideshow:

 ”These are pulled from two housing surveys, one from the Regional District and one from the Coalition to End Homelessness from Campbell River. Roughly 159 Cortes Island residents, including children, are in unstable housing. This is housing that doesn’t have basic amenities, or they have to move out in the summer, or it’s above more than one-third of their income that they’re paying for either a mortgage or a rental.  Roughly eleven people are living in the rough: living in sheds or tents. They live in conditions that really no one should live in,” explained Vonesch.

There are close to 100 short term rentals on Cortes and he asked, “how should we handle short term rentals in Cortes? We know it’s an important part of our economy. A lot of people survive that way, but how do we do this in a way that makes sense for the housing challenge we have and for people who live here?”  

“Almost one-third of the homes on Cortes are empty:  approximately 240 homes are empty while we have a housing crisis!  The average person on Cortes can afford a $209,000 mortgage, and the average listing price at the time of this survey was $794,000. So there is a huge gap between what locals can afford, and  basically what the tourist prices are.”

Director Vonesch also described some of the actions the Strathcona Regional District is undertaking, “There’s a proposal to perform a housing service at the Regional District that includes up to $10 million in loans that we can access to do housing developments.  I’ve got lots of ideas around that and we’ll talk about those in breakout groups. I’ve also put together a proposal to the Regional District to spend $140,000 of our Gas Tax money for  a preliminary road into Rainbow Ridge, so we can get started and have access there.”

Sadhu Johnston acknowledged his predecessor, Sandra Wood. 

“Sandra’s played an incredible role in holding this space in our community for many years: raising millions of dollars, buying 50 acres, and doing the work to get it ready for us to build housing on it. There’s many parts to Sandra.  She’s an incredible sales lady for this design.  She’s gotten all of us excited about what’s going to happen. She’s also a hard worker. She’s been out in the field a lot and she’s been building many relationships with lots of different parts of our community.”

“Sandra, I’m so honored to take the mantle from you. I look forward to continuing to work with you. She’s agreed to help with fundraising still, so she will be in this space, but she’ll have a little bit more time to do other things. A really heartfelt thank you from all of us for all that you’ve done, Sandra.”

The Housing Society has just submitted a funding application to BC Housing. Realizing that due to higher building costs and lower rents, their application was not competitive with applications from urban centres like Campbell River and Nanaimo, Cortes has also raised close to $2 million in additional funding.   

Johnston listed some housing solutions already in use elsewhere that Cortes Island might benefit from. 

  • People with a spare room or little cabin on Pender, Salt Spring or other Southern Gulf Islands can offer them as rentals through the HomeShare Registry. Everything is anonymous until there is a match. 
  • Some senior landlords, who have difficulty doing chores, are accepting labour in lieu of money. 
  • The Opal Community Land Trust owns a parcel of land which people can build on. They also have a financing program which makes it cheaper for people to get into affordable home ownership. People can sell their homes and benefit from any improvements they’ve made, but can not benefit from any rises in real estate values as they do not own the land. 
  • A develop in Cumberland retains ownership of the land but rents people spaces where they can put modular homes.  
  • Another program allows people to use a portion of their rent for the down payment on a home. Googling it for more information, I came across an example of someone who was paying $208.33 a month on top of their normal rent and that $208.33 went towards the down payment. 
  • There are also rent banks that will loan, or in some cases grant, people who are having a hard time paying their rent. 

Some additional input came through the breakout sessions, and here is a synopsis starting with environmental concerns  

Environmental Concerns

Every session picked someone to report back to the general assembly and the reporter from this group said ecological matters “needed to be first on the agenda, not left off … We talked a bunch about water issues, we talked about zoning,  redefining ecological health, especially identifying where we will not develop …”

The condition of most Cortes Island septic systems is unknown and some people in the environmental session suspect the worst. As was discovered after the algae bloom problems at Hague Lake in 2014 and 15, septic systems may look okay on the surface and still be seeping nutrients into the water table. 

One of the suggestions that did not make it back to the general assembly called for increased usage of compostable toilets and well maintained outhouses. 

The state of Cortes Island’s aquifers is unknown. However there have been droughts and rumours of shallow wells going dry during the past three summers. 2023 was the second year in a row that the flow through Basil Creek, in Squirrel Cove, was reduced to a trickle and the Chum salmon did not return in any significant number. This past summer at least 3 of the wells near Basil Creek stopped recharging for significant periods of time. The owner of a fourth well stopped using it when the water level fell to two feet.

(This is a bit off topic, but the chart above was drawn up after the forum. Cortes Currents interviewed one of the Smelt Bay owners during the 2021 drought and checked back to see how they fared this year. (They were a bit nervous as the level dropped, but made out okay.) The fourth Squirrel Cove owner was also concerned about her well, but it did not fail either. Third parties informed me that the wells at four Whaletown properties ceased recharging, but as you can see above at least one of them was operational throughout the drought. Towards the bottom you will see a reference to a Whaletown couple whose well allegedly runs dry every year, at which point they switch over to rainwater. That reminded me of Kristen Schofield-Sweet and John Shook, who do not even have a well – they obtain almost all of their water needs by harvesting rainwater.) 

Another environmental concern is that new housing can interrupt wildlife corridors.

Suggestions that Cortes Island needs an environmental impact study were made in two of the breakout sessions, but not reported back to the general assembly. (To a certain extent this comes with the turf: when-ever you go through a reporter, they will mention the facts they find most relevant.)

Tiny Homes

There was discussion of tiny homes for worker housing as well as more permanent solutions like tiny homes on private lots, and tiny home villages with shared amenities and possibly even guest accommodations. 

Sadhu Johnston: “Do we need a tiny home village? Do we need programs to train people how to build their own tiny homes? What kinds of other programs might we need to support people that are living in tiny homes so that they have security where they live?” 

Mark Vonesch: “And for the landowners who would be open to having someone with a tiny house, how does that get facilitated?”

A spokesperson from the online group explained, “One of the major things that came up in our discussion was the need to make sure that water, fire and sewage infrastructure is standardized and is up to the task of dealing with a lot of people living in one small place, especially with the climate crisis, we know that fire is an increasing concern for our community.”

Should the Cortes Housing Society provide a space for tiny homes? Could the SRD purchase the land for a tiny home village?

Housing 

Cortes Island’s Official Community Plan needs to be updated. 

Some of the suggested changes were increasing the density allowed in community hubs.  Changing the number of houses allowed per lot so there can be more houses allowed on them. For example, right now, if you have a lot that is less than four acres, you can’t have a secondary house. 

The high cost of land and construction are barriers to building more rental housing. 

One of the issues that came up was how much it costs to construct rental units versus how much income you get from that housing. The market value of land is the overriding affordability problem. Is it possible to  disconnect housing from land ownership? This led to a discussion of land cooperatives and cooperative housing.

Short Term Rentals


There are approximately 100 short term rentals on Cortes Island.
One of the group’s reporters pointed out that  many people rent out their main house for financial survival and to be able to stay on the island.

She asked: 

  • Should absentee landlords be allowed to do short term rentals? 
  • Should the only short term rentals be people renting out their primary residence?  
  • We need to decide as a community if we’re a tourist community or not.
  • How many businesses actually rely on tourists? 
  • Should there be zones where people are allowed to use their primary residences for short term rentals?  
  • What are other communities doing? 

There were questions about zoning and whether short term rentals should be in residential or commercial zones. 

Worker Housing


Someone pointed out that raising wages does not help address the problem of finding worker houses unless there is housing available. 

There is also a distinct difference between workers who are on Cortes year round and those that come during the tourist season. The latter’s needs might be addressed by bunkies or tiny house villages. 

“You could have small scale, very small scale sleeping units with shared amenities like laundry, kitchen and guest housing. Someone used a lovely example of trailer parks, which we often get snobby about but are  incredibly social communities that are really resilient and affordable.”  

Empty Homes


Most of the people in one empty homes group seemed to accept the idea that people who only occupy their homes for a month or two in the summer should pay an empty homes tax. In Vancouver this is 3%.

Landlord-tenant relations,

Should there be an intermediary system for screening renters and trying to facilitate more responsible long term rentals? Could the Cortes Community Housing Society fill that role? 

Someone compared renter – landlord relationships to a marriage. It’s a long term relationship which can sometimes go sideways and end up in legal challenges. 

A lot of potential landlords are reluctant to rent because they do not want to get locked into a situation that they are unable to get out of. Others have moved to short term rentals because there is less risk.

There were a number of homeowners in one group and, after listening to their concerns, the solitary tenant allegedly replied ‘it can be hard to deal with the drama of being a landlord, but sometimes it’s much harder to be homeless.’

Home Upgrades

CMHC provides loans for some home upgrades, including rental spaces on your property.

There are also situations where people are upgrading buildings on land that they do not own, that they’re actually renting from someone else. 

Someone pointed out there are more than 40 liveaboards on Cortes Island and they need access to services like garbage collection, showers and toilets.

Click here to access the Cortes Housing Forum Online Survey

Conclusion

A lot of different ideas came out of the housing forum.

Vonesch concluded, “Decisions that we make today are going to roll out and impact what Cortes looks like 20, 50, 100 years from now. If we do not come together, if we don’t create some cohesion and some agreed principles and values and make decisions together, we will go through the free market way that we’ve seen in other southern Gulf Islands. Where we see more young people leaving, we see it turn more  into a retirement community  and a playground for people visiting in the summer. I don’t think that’s what Cortes wants, but it requires that we step up and come together. I just really appreciate everyone coming together, sharing their ideas. This is our first in-person housing forum, and there’s a lot of great ideas that came out of it.”

Sadhu Johnston added, “We can do this. We are a very resourceful community, and I think rural communities across Canada,  across North America are really struggling with all the issues we talked about. I think we can be a global leader in demonstrating how to solve these problems.” 

“We are going to have a follow-up December 22nd. It’s going to be in the form of a coffeehouse, which we’re hosting with Rex (Weyler) in this room.”

On Dec 7, some additional information was posted in to the section about wells experiencing difficulties.

Top image credit: Watching the slideshow – Photo courtesy Suzanne Fletcher

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