Time for a community discussion about housing

Plenty of pundits in and around Qualicum Beach have expressed a need — usually imprecisely defined, if at all, and seldom backed up by current, reliable, objective needs assessment data — for more housing that is “attainable” or “affordable” or “social.” Constructors of proposed buildings often espouse the virtues of their projects as contributing to the inventory of affordable housing, without providing any firm definition or meaningful commitment to follow-through after the development permits are issued.

The last time a structured, visionary discussion about housing took place among Qualicum Beach residents was during the 2017/18 Official Community Plan update process. The resulting OCP is not prescriptive about how many bedrooms in what kinds of housing should be made available in which neighbourhoods. However, there are broad policy statements in the OCP, including “Through various methods including rezonings, regulatory bylaws, incentive programs and education, the Town shall encourage a diversity of housing to meet the needs of people of all ages, income levels and special needs.”

Do we know how many “Craigs” we have in Qualicum Beach? They are young and mobile — should we care whether we can meet their needs for housing here in QB? That question is probably best answered by the employers in town who rely on “cheap labour.”

It is always risky to try to predict the future, but some trends can be expected to continue. For example, demand for purchasing real estate in Qualicum Beach, and the ample cash that comes with it, will continue, and probably accelerate — driven by the rising incomes and savings of a burgeoning middle class in an increasingly unsettled east Asia, plus laundered money from the re-emerging cocaine industry in Colombia. The money and people flow into the Lower Mainland, retiring Yaletown boomers cash in their housing windfall, and downsize to a million dollar bungalow in Qualicum Beach, in competition with the snowbirds who have unloaded the house in Phoenix and now want a winter retreat in Canada that is less infested with coronavirus.

Build a hundred condos, two hundred buyers line up and bid up the prices… ad infinitum — if no-one finds the brake pedal. Meanwhile, the working poor line up for a used tent.

Maybe the next OCP discussion will need to consider closing the doors to new arrivals and restricting construction to only replacing, not adding to, existing bedroom (housing) inventory. Maybe our water supply, at increasing risk from unmitigated climate change, becomes the primary driver of housing policy. If too small a percentage of the existing bed inventory is for long-term rental, then perhaps we consider a moratorium on building owner-occupied units until we reach and sustain a specified threshold for rentals, e.g. 20% of the total inventory.

This is a discussion for the wider community of both business operators as well as residents, a discussion not dominated by the self-interests of the building industries.

What exactly do we mean by “Affordable Housing”?

Let’s unpack the concept of “affordable”. There doesn’t appear to be an up-to-date documented analysis of what specific groups of potential occupants are feeling excluded from access to housing in Qualicum Beach that they can afford. Here are some hypothetical examples of people who would aspire to have affordable accommodation in our community.

Craig just graduated from high school, chooses not to proceed to post-secondary education at this point, still lives with his parents, wants to remain in Qualicum Beach, and has an entry level job at minimum wage, currently earning $14.60 per hour, no benefits, averaging 150 hours per month. He and a buddy who is in similar circumstances would like to find a modest two bedroom apartment to rent together. Neither has a car nor wants one; both prefer to cycle or walk to work. They checked out the new Gateway apartments in downtown Parksville and liked what they saw (2 bedroom, 2 bath, 927 sq ft,  $1,608 / mo., incl hydro, heat, water, in-suite laundry). The idea of paying 40% of after-tax income for rent and utilities is scary for Craig, but such is the price of the independence they seek.

If they can’t find something comparable in QB, they are thinking of moving to Parksville and working there. A Kijiji query produced no comparable rental options in QB. Someone mentioned to them a new proposed “Long Term, Affordable Rental Housing Cluster” project to be called Beach Creek Cottage Court. Craig found some details in the documentation provided by the developers, Dean and Mary Anne Dreger, for a Public Hearing on the project held at the QB Council meeting on October 14, 2020.

However, Dreger is proposing 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, 570 sq ft and suggesting (who knows what the price will become after it’s built) “rents and utility bills that total $1,300 / mo.”. For Craig and his friend, that is way too small and too expensive, and cannot come close to competing with the Parksville apartment they have their eye on.

Do we know how many “Craigs” we have in Qualicum Beach? They are young and mobile — should we care whether we can meet their needs for housing here in QB? That question is probably best answered by the employers in town who rely on “cheap labour” with no specialized training. Is there an adequate supply of reliable workers like Craig? If not, is the lack of “affordable housing” keeping or driving the Craigs away?

Jennifer is a single mother. She and her 4 year old daughter Emma live with Jennifer’s parents in the Interior. Jennifer owns a car and has been working part-time while completing her Red Seal certification as a Heavy Equipment Operator. Her uncle’s family lives in Dashwood and owns and operates a growing excavation business. After her references checked out, the company is eager to hire her – at a good wage, with benefits. Jennifer would like to move with her young child to Vancouver Island.  She’s checked out other potential Vancouver Island employers and found them eager to hire as well. So, Jennifer and Emma have to decide if Qualicum Beach is the place for them to live.

Jennifer has enough savings for a down payment (with help from the bank of mom and dad) and an excellent credit rating, and knows that mortgage interest rates are very low right now. She would prefer to own their home, but would also be happy to rent until she and Emma get more settled. Their choice of location will also depend on access to schools and after-school care, not just “affordable housing.” Even with the strata fee, she knows she can afford a 2 bedroom, 1 bath condo. There are several units available in Courtenay and Nanaimo, but she would like to avoid the commute if she chooses to work for her uncle’s company.

Do we know how many “Jennifers” might want to relocate to Qualicum Beach?

Fred is a semi-retired self-employed handyman, 68 years old in good health, and rents a bachelor suite near Victoria for $1,100 per mo., including utilities and in-suite laundry. Last month he got his renoviction notice that the building is being converted to condos. For the last year or two, Fred has been considering getting away from the city, but wants to stay on Vancouver Island, mostly for the climate and to be near his grandchildren in Nanaimo. So now is the time for Fred to move up-Island.

Do we know how many “Freds” want to relocate to Qualicum Beach? Do we want to attract Fred to live here? If so, what do we offer in terms of accommodation choices for Fred?

Darcy is 27 and an economic refugee from Alberta. Worked in the oil patch, made great money, bought a truck but only saved $5,000 over three years, then the job disappeared. Darcy’s EI benefits ran out, so he traded his truck for a used VW camper van, drove to Vancouver Island, and is now living in the van, surviving on $20 per day to stretch out his remaining $3,400. As the days get colder and damper, and jobs for his skills remain scarce, Darcy is discouraged by the possibility of his having to sell the van in six months, buy a tent and a backpack and live rough in the bush within walking distance of some mid-Island Town.

This is a discussion for the wider community of both business operators as well as residents, a discussion not dominated by the self-interests of the building industries.

How many “Darcys” do we have in and around Qualicum Beach? What income support does Darcy qualify for? Is it above the poverty line? Darcy is just looking for warm, dry shelter. Barracks with a shared latrine and hot shower would be satisfactory and a huge relief for Darcy. Then he could still have a vehicle to get himself to job interviews, if and when openings come up. What does QB offer in terms of accommodation choices for Darcy, and others who are already living rough?

For many years Jean cared for her ailing husband Joe. After he died, Jean, a healthy 74, enjoyed the solace of their modest rural home in Whiskey Creek, as well as her regular alpine hikes outside of town. But eventually Jean recognized a need and a desire to re-engage with others.

Jean has zero interest in what passes for conventional group retirement living (think Berwick, Gardens, Manor, Eagle Park etc.). She ideally wants to be able to lock her door and do her own thing in her self-contained home, while also being part of a diverse community of a few dozen people of all ages, abilities, backgrounds and interests. Through a mutual friend, Jean connected with another lady who, in similar circumstances a few years ago, purchased a unit in a Nanaimo cohousing community. Jean was curious, so went for a visit. Within a half hour of getting there and absorbing the wonderful sounds of children at play, the bubbling chatter in the  communal kitchen, and the bountiful fresh food in the large garden out back, Jean wept in disbelief. So many of her own un-met “housing needs” suddenly became apparent and achievable. On her way home, Jean wondered: Does anything like this exist in or around Qualicum Beach?

This is not an exhaustive list — we welcome reader suggestions of other scenarios, accommodation options, and housing strategies that Qualicum Beach should consider.