Housing on Cortes: an Interview with Mark Vonesch (part two)

Currents interviewed Mark Vonesch in early December. This is the second half of that interview, in which we dig a lot more deeply into issues related to housing on Cortes and in the local area: homelessness, employment, property values, AirBnB and much more.

We present here some excerpts from nearly 30 minutes of audio. Our interview covered quite a bit more ground: homelessness in Campbell River, and their approach to it; property tax structures and how they could be made more equitable; the related issue of a real estate market in which, as with rent, locals cannot compete with tourists and rusticators; the fundamental problem of treating housing as a speculative investment commodity. We recommend listening to the entire podcast for the most complete information.

Photos above and at top of page are from Mark Vonesch’s swearing in ceremony – courtesy SRD

We ask Mark for his opinion of the Finnish “Housing First” approach to homelessness.

Housing does not have to be super expensive. And there are examples of places in British Columbia that have addressed housing for the most vulnerable in their communities by looking at options that are extremely cheap.

What you’re referring to [in Victoria and Duncan], that was about $15,000 that ended up costing, per unit. They did 30 units, which is obviously way more than Cortes would need. So maybe we wouldn’t be able to get that same kind of price. But it shows that you can get a very small 10 by 10 size space, with a bed and heat and a place to make simple meals — and that transforms someone’s life.

And something that you referred to in that previous article, and something that I learned during my time with working with Gregor Robertson in the city of Vancouver and thinking about housing, was that it is cheaper to house someone and to provide the services that they need, than it is for the healthcare system, the justice system, police, ambulance [if they are homeless]. And I think that’s one of the, the things that is making housing an issue that everybody really cares about. And that it makes sense for us to address housing, to move forward with it, because it’s good for everybody.

If you live in a community where most people have housing, and people have stable housing, you’re gonna have a better workforce. You’re gonna have more successful businesses, you’re gonna have less crime. You’re gonna, be in a community that you want to be in.

We talk about the reality of housing on Cortes Island:

We have, you know, about ten people at least, on Cortes, that are living rough.

Living in tents, living in sheds, living under tarps. Like this is a reality on Cortes. And it’s sad. It breaks my heart. And you know, I really think that there’s an argument to be made that when everyone has housing, our community’s better, our community’s stronger. And that’s one of the reasons I’m really passionate about the issue.

159 people on Cortes are in unstable housing. And this could be because it doesn’t have running water, or it doesn’t have heat, or they don’t know if they have it past six months or they know that every June, they’re gonna have to move out.

159 people in a population of 1200 are living in unstable housing. This isn’t just an issue of folks that are, living under tarps, five or ten people that we have on Cortes that are living rough. This is about families, this is about professionals. This is about our economy.

In the course of the conversation, Mark suggests several different strategies for tackling the shortage of housing (and affordable housing) on Cortes. A well-implemented Empty Home Tax could raise money to fund more affordable housing. Property owners could be offered incentives to rent to long-term tenants. We could, as a community, build “tiny house clusters” at low cost to provide our neighbours with a roof over their heads. We explore several of these options.

We also discuss the impact of AirBnB on our housing stock:

I think I saw a statistic that we have 97 short-term rentals on Cortez, and there’s certainly an argument I’ve heard that we need to ban short-term rentals, we need to ban Airbnbs. And I don’t think that’s the solution. I think we need to recognise that it’s an important part of our economy and a lot of folks rely on that.

[But] the reality is, that locals can’t compete with tourists. and that’s for housing purchases, but also for people who wanna rent out their cabin , and make, you know, $15,000 in a hundred days or something — compared to renting it out and making 12,000 over 10 months and having to struggle with the tenant.

Mark expresses regret that the Landlords and Tenants Act, despite the best of intentions, has had unexpected consequences.

The other thing we need to look at, and face the reality, is that we’ve got 240-ish empty homes on Cortez.

So, you know, I speak to a lot of homeowners that don’t wanna rent their house out because they’re scared. They’re worried about — you know — renters not paying their rent, wrecking their place, not being able to get them out eventually. That’s really common amongst a lot of people.

And I get it. You know, I think the BC NDP legislation to strengthen the rights of renters is great — when you look at it generally it’s a great thing — but at the same time, it’s sort of decreased the housing supply because people are just scared to enter into those agreement. So I think we need to look at ways to mitigate the risk for homeowners to be able to rent to people.

Mark acknowledges the slow pace of projects that rely on funding from senior levels of government:

So the fastest way to get housing built and in the market — is not to do it through government funding.

And one of the beauties of Cortes is that we have wealthier folks in the island that wanna contribute to making this place better, and that have the means, and have the values to contribute. So I think if we can come up with a plan , if we can get very simple tiny houses, ten of them or something for 200 grand, let’s say. I think that [money] could be raised locally. Finding the land to put it on, that’s the tricky part. If it’s a private piece of land we need to figure out ways to get around the insurance and the zoning to make that possible.

We discuss ways in which zoning bylaws make it difficult to do anything “different” in the way of housing. Should we have another go at rewriting our OCP and zoning bylaw? Mark thinks maybe not:

I initially thought, let’s get a new OCP. And having spoken to some of my colleagues at the Regional District and understanding that process better —

One, it’s super expensive. $60K, $80K to do it. Two, it’s would be a huge, long process that involves a lot more than, I think, we need to address immediately. So I’m interested in looking at the OCP and visiting parts of it and revisiting parts of it, and adjusting things — and finding out where the political will in the community is to make things happen.

Mark thinks the first thing the community needs to do about our dire housing situation is sit down and talk to each other.

One of the things I wanna do early in 2023 is have a Housing Summit. I’m imagining it: one, one day or one evening, we have landowners come together. We have conversations, and we look at the issue, and we present some things that other communities have done and get feedback; and also do an evening for renters, for folks that are renting houses. And you’ll have those similar sorts of conversations. And then bring people together .

In the meantime, until those Housing Summit sessions can be organised, Mark invites the community to contact him via his website, cortestogether.com, or his SRD email address mvonesch@srd.ca, or his SRD work number, 250-202-4422. He also plans to start holding regular office hours soon at Manson’s Hall.

If we don’t make room for families to settle down here, and young people, to have permanent homes here, we’re gonna be moving more towards a retirement community over the next 20, 30 years. And I think that’s the dilemma that Cortea faces : are we just gonna go the route of some other places where we subdivide and sell off to the highest bidder?

And 20 years later, there’s no dishwashers for the restaurants, no builders to build the houses. And the things that we love about Cortes, the culture and the young people and the families and this being a place that’s vibrant and intergenerational — we’re gonna lose that.

So I think now is the time for us to make some strategic direction for our community, for us to come together, see the humanity in each other, and find some solutions that I can really champion.

[Feature image by Arwin Basdew on Unsplash]