Funded by a grant from the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative

This article is the first in a three part podcast series called Finding Home.

The first podcast features Sandra Wood and Ian Scott discussing the options and challenges for creating affordable housing that they have encountered in pursuing the creation of four affordable rental units for seniors and 20 units for all ages on Cortes. That podcast is almost two hours long and includes a number of questions and answers from local community members. Please listen to the podcast for more in-depth explanation of the Seniors Village expansion and the Rainbow Ridge project. 

Construction of the Cortes Senior’s village - courtesy Cortes Island Senior Society
Part One - Cortes Currents/Folk U: Manda Aufochs Gillespie interviews Sandra Wood and Ian Scott about affordable housing
Part two: Cortes Currents/Folk U: Manda Aufochs Gillespie interviews Sandra Wood and Ian Scott about affordable housing

Seasonal Homelessness

Sandra Wood knows about seasonal homelessness. Before she moved to Cortes Island, she was one of many islanders throughout the Gulf and Discovery islands that packed and unpacked twice a year in order to free her home for summer owners. “I was lucky enough to find a property that I could rent 10 months of the year,” she says of those five years. She considers herself lucky to have been able to take her holiday during the time when the owners needed their home back, “But I got a taste of what that’s like and how much energy it takes to move in and out completely pack up your life twice a year.” 

When Sandra moved to Cortes, she was excited to be able to help the Seniors Society with their first B.C. Housing supported development of six affordable rental units back in 2009. “I got to see firsthand the power of what a nonprofit can do to actually solve a housing problem.” She also knows how transformative supportive housing can be. “ I grew up in family housing back in Edmonton, Alberta. My parents are immigrants to Canada, they came from Holland.” Sandra lived in family housing from when she was 5  years old until she was 13. “I loved it,” mentioning the village like feel of having other kids and adults nearby and being able to walk to school. “It was not only a great foundation for me as a kid, feeling safe, and feeling free to roam, but I also later realized that [living in supportive housing] gave my parents the chance to save up a downpayment to work towards buying their own home.” Sandra’s mom is now 88 and still living in that home they bought after living their supportive family housing. 

Affordable year round rentals

Now, Sandra Wood is helping the Cortes Island Seniors Society again as the Housing Coordinator as they attempt to take on the difficult task of providing affordable, year-round rental housing for locals in one of B.C.’s most desirable coastal communities. The first project in this undertaking—a four-unit expansion to the Seniors’ Village six existing units—is well underway. “We are planning to be finished by early December, … and have tenants moving in before Christmas,” says Sandra. 

The Seniors Society has also purchased the 51 acres right next door to the Seniors Village and south of the Fire Hall in order to provide future housing options for Cortes residents. This project, named Rainbow Ridge, will “be for all ages, including more seniors housing.” The current vision is about 20% of these future houses will be for seniors as well as housing for single people and families. “At the moment, we’re at the stage of still predevelopment planning, and gathering all of the cost information so that we can put a really strong proposal in to BC Housing for their January 15th intake.” 

To prepare little Cortes Island to compete for funding from B.C. Housing the project has hired Development Consultant/Environmental Planner/Project Manager Ian Scott, who “brings the much needed knowledge of real world, affordable building projects and partnership [experience] with BC Housing and other communities” says Sandra. The volunteer housing committee and newly formed Housing Society includes Aaron Ellingson, Andrea Fisher, Bill Weaver, Carol London, David Rousseau, Elizabeth Anderson, Ruth Riddle, and Valerie Wernet. Sandra Wood, Ian Scott, Hayley Newell, and Kathy Winter make up the staff. “It’s a powerful team of people with a lot of talent. And they are your friends and neighbours and people who really understand…what it is to live in this community and what it is to give back to the community” says Sandra. 

Cortes’ Housing Crisis

“We know that for many years, communities across the province, including small island communities, have been facing a shortage of affordable housing,” says Marielle Tounsi speaking for the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. 

Ian Scott reiterates that island and rural communities face unique challenges in a country where as a whole: “Housing has kind of gotten away from us.” The situation in Cortes and other island communities has been exacerbated by very little federal funding in recent years for affordable housing and what funding that there was available was not being directed to rural communities. The second unique challenge to communities like Cortes, Ian says, is a changing economy in coastal BC with it becoming increasingly desirable as a place to live and for vacation homes, “driving up prices beyond what local can afford, whether it comes to rent or purchase.”

“On top of that, even though we have a lot of undeveloped land on Cortes, our zoning basically makes the developable property into acreages,” says Sandra Wood. “So really the smallest acreage you can buy here is about two and a half acres, and it goes up to hundreds of acres. And our zoning basically allows you to have one house and one cottage on that property. So you end up with a lot of land, but very few actual dwellings.” 

‘Living in tents, couch surfing …’

She explains the housing challenges are further exacerbated in island communities because there are no suburbs. There is no daily access to a nearby city to get better paying work or cheaper housing. There are no apartment complexes. Much of the population on Cortes that rents also works and thus can’t just leave in the summer.  The seasonally homeless then end up living in tents, couch surfing, or otherwise living very marginally for many months. Which means: “a lot of moving, coming and going, too-ing and fro-ing. And that just takes up, sucks up,  a huge amount of energy that I think could be better served by putting into this community, whether it’s through jobs through employment or through volunteer time,” says Sandra Wood. 

Leaving the island

It’s not just working people and younger families affected by a shortage of year-round housing options. “On Cortes Island, if you can’t find suitable housing, you have to move away from Cortes. And that certainly impacts a lot of our elders, people who can no longer manage a big acreage property on their own. And they’d like to stay here because they have friends and family and community organizations that they value. But they’re basically forced to leave the island. And that’s a huge loss of knowledge, of volunteer time, of friends, of community. It really unravels our community. So we’re looking to find ways to provide rental options for those people who would like to downsize and would still like to stay in the community.”

For those interested in understanding more details of the Cortes Island’s housing needs, visit The Area B Housing Needs Assessment at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59b1994b49fc2b50d068eb7e/t/5bb6712b4192024dae1a4d3e/1538683182830/Area+B.pdf  This report shows that the Cortes community is in dire need of affordable housing alternatives as more than 90% of households currently living on Cortes, including those living in their own homes, would not be able to afford the median rental costs on the island (450 of approximately 500 households). In other words, most of Cortes Island would need some sort of government support in order to get into housing if they were to try and find year-round housing now. “Increasingly, the evidence shows that even those folks who may be making more moderate incomes, depending on the community, also need that [government support to build more affordable housing] or else they’re really stretched, you know, to make ends meet,” says Ian Scott. 

Rural Communities Depend on Each Other

“I think the other thing that people might not understand who live in the cities is that you can be pretty confident in the city that your recreational facilities like … your swimming pools and and halls and things will stay open, and you’re pretty well guaranteed your schools are going to stay open, because you’ve got this incredible tax base of everybody who lives in your city, paying their property taxes and paying their provincial sales tax and things like that contributes  to the budget that your city has to invest in your social infrastructure. But on Cortes Island, our social infrastructure is created by nonprofits and charities. And so if we don’t have volunteers, and if we don’t have people donating their time and their money, and sometimes materials, then things unravel. And that could mean for example, on Cortes, that if we don’t have enough young families having children, that we will not have a school. And not only will we not have a school for those children to attend, but that means all the jobs— for the teachers, for the administrative staff for the support management staff—those are lost as well. And those are really important parts of our economy. And that’s how it’s all really connected,” says Sandra Wood.

“Housing is so deeply connected to the fabric of our community, and the facilities that we love and enjoy, as well as the economy that is so important to sustaining us,” she continues.

BC Housing Funding: A Rarity in Small Communities 

“Our government is making the largest investment in affordable housing in B.C. history, including thousands of mixed-income affordable homes already underway around the province, with more to come. Through the Building BC: Community Housing Fund’s first intake, launched in 2018, we are currently working with non-profits to build new, affordable rental homes on Cortes Island (4 homes), Hornby Island (26 homes) and Salt Spring Island (80 homes). The Province has also recently issued a second call for proposals under the Community Housing Fund, and communities are encouraged to apply for more housing to meet their needs,” says the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. 

Ian Scott says that the Seniors Society should get kudos for pulling off a project with BC Housing as early as 2009 because that kind of funding, “up until recently, [was] not very common.” He points to numerous other communities throughout the Discovery and Gulf Islands that are in every bit as much need as Cortes but have not managed to get much or any housing support for building homes affordable to their long-term residents. “I also work in Tofino, and there’s four units of seniors housing there, and they’ve been struggling with a an affordable housing challenge in Tofino for decades.”  He goes on to say that:  “I think we’re at a point where the need for affordable housing in small rural communities, is quite a bit more drastic and important than it ever was before.”

Ian Scott also points out that the Seniors Village project is a good example of how the cost of housing construction has so dramatically outstripped inflation “in terms of what it costs build a home now compared to 15, 20 years ago.” With the B.C, Housing support in the Seniors Village, the project is getting about $100,000 grant per unit plus some annual subsidy to allow the rents to continue to be affordable over time. Yet, he said that 10 years ago when the first round of Seniors’ Village housing was built the project : “got quite a bit less than that [$100,000 per unit] to deliver similar rents. And so that’s just an example of how costs have changed in that period of time.” He says that while a fraction of this can be accounted for by the initial development having a lot more volunteer effort, that now with the way B.C. Housing has “really tightened up on the way that they manage their housing and their programs” there was no way to make use of a volunteer base for most of the construction even if the Senior Society had wanted to try. 

Ian points out that besides the growing construction costs, there are other hurdles these days for creating affordable housing. He says that for a long time, especially in the 1970s the federal government gave quite a strong tax break if you were building rental housing. “They’ve never done that again.” 

Rural areas and smaller communities have an additional challenge which is that their communities often don’t have areas zoned for the kind of dense housing that would be necessary to build if it were to be affordable to local residents.  For instance, he says that on Cortes if a person wanted to build affordable housing without government support, they’d need to building something like a three or four story apartment building. Not something the community is likely to want, thus government help is increasingly important. 

Small Community, Big Heart

Even after the four new units built as part of the Seniors Village expansion, Cortes still has 130 local residents on a waiting list for year-round rental housing. “We did apply to build these 20 units on Rainbow Ridge two years ago in the 2018 intake for B.C. Housing” at the same time they applied for the four-unit expansion of the Seniors Village, explains Sandra Wood. “The great news is the Seniors Village was selected.” They also really liked the  concept for Rainbow Ridge, liked it enough to give “pre development funding, so that we could do our due diligence on that property. Because we had only just purchased it, we had no idea at that stage of the soil structure, the amount of water that is under it. We didn’t know anything about the topology of the land, it hadn’t been recently surveyed, we didn’t know about the ecological and environmental features on the property.” So while development and construction on the Seniors Village expansion began, the team also went and did more research on Rainbow Ridge and consulted with the community on the design and footprint. 

And the Seniors Village is now 50% complete with the actual construction: it’s at the point of finishing touches, with the drywall being painted, cupboards and counters going in. “We are very grateful for our local team of carpenters, and helpers, and first aid attendants, as well as plumbers and excavators, … and the local Cortes crew who have been working really hard, full time since the middle of May, to get this project built on time, and on budget,” says Sandra Wood. 

Yet, it’s not just the contractors, office staff, and volunteers that have made this project go from idea to reality so quickly, it has been “really made possible by this community,” says Sandra, especially by “supporting the rezoning of that property.” That lot was originally zoned for six cottages. Yet, there were 16 seniors on a waiting list and more land available.  So the Senior Society came back to ask for four more cottages to be allowed on the remaining two-and-half acres, which also houses the Community Health Centre.  

Getting land rezoned is “one of the keys that you have to put in the lock to get the B.C. housing funding approved,” says Sandra. The team has to also have blueprints, all of the engineering details completed, and a budget that is really solid:  “solid enough to get a contractor to actually bid a fixed price to deliver that project.” 

This is what the Seniors Village expansion had to do to get approved for funding through B.C. Housing. This is also where Rainbow Ridge is now: awaiting rezoning so that the team can apply for the next B.C. Housing intake which is on January 15th of 2021.

As part of Cortes Island’s attempt to meet the overwhelming need of local residents for stable housing options, the Seniors Society is now looking towards the Rainbow Ridge project. This would provide 20 units of affordable, year-round rental for all ages on the parcel of land next to the Seniors Village. During this period of research, design, and consultation the team has hired engineers and consultants to map out details such as: the “best location for the wastewater system, the volume and capacity of the water system, … high level designs and frameworks for the stormwater management, for the rain gardens, … how to get power into the site…and a whole lot more,” says Sandra.  “That’s an amazing amount of planning and design you need to do so that you can accurately budget and say this is how much it’s going to cost. And be able to get a contractor who will say yes, I can build it for that and I will contractually agree to a fixed price.” The Ecological Site Report, Wastewater Report, Hydrogeology report, Environmental Site Assessment, Stormwater Framework Plan and Report, are all on their website along with the Site and Unit Plans, the Official Community Plan Review, the 2013 Housing Survey, and the 2017 Leap Survey at cortescommunityhousing.org

“We are wrapping up those plans to reapply for that round of funding. And if we are lucky enough to be chosen. That would mean that we could potentially start breaking ground in 2021. And, best case scenario, we could potentially be having people living there as early as 2022. So it is totally possible, it is totally doable. And what it really needs next is the rezoning approval that will allow us to put 20 housing units on the northern most six acres out of that 51 acre property.”

Designing Homes Sustainably

Design sustainable starts with locating a neighbourhood in such a way as to maximize access to existing community infrastructure. It also means designing for cost and enegery savings, minimizing the environmental impact, and ensuring the project is a “good neighbour.” 

Energy: Human and Cost

In the case of the Seniors Village and Rainbow Ridge, it’s clear that designing sustainably from both an environmental and cost perspective means designing homes that are clustered together with fewer outside walls. “Outside walls cost more,” says Ian Scott. Townhouses cost less per unit to build than a single family home “because you have less outside walls to build,” and “it also turns out it is more energy efficient.” As well, the smaller your building footprint, the less you have to put in foundations which are costly, and the less you disturb the local environment, both in the building but also in getting the area Firesmart. It’s not just more affordable than spreading out these units over 20 or 60 acres, but it’s far less of an impact on the environment. Ian says that the more village-like construction also means that these neighbours will be able to walk to school, the grocery store, doctor’s office, and post office, all which reduces car trips and ecological impact.  All in all, they are building “simple, energy efficient, and really durable,” homes he says. 

Water

In order to ensure that the Rainbow Ridge property would have enough water without impacting other neighbours and the larger community, the project team hired a Hydrogeological Assessment. This involved looks at the availability of the water resources undertake the surface of the ground. They found that underneath the Rainbow Ridge property there’s a really deep and large aquifer of water.  It seems that Hague Lake seeps slowly through the ground and into this aquifer. They have drilled into this aquifer in the well at the Seniors Village and it does indeed seem abundant and doesn’t impact the water and wells of the neighbours. 

Septic

One of the limiting factors of building homes in rural areas, says Ian, is that there is no public sewer system and there are limitations on how many homes you can put on a septic system that is not a community sewer system. The project will need to build and manage its own septic system. In order to minimize the impact from septic, the project is planning on an Advanced Type II system, similar to what is in use at the co op already. It will be optimized to “not only remove human illness causing bacteria, but also getting rid of the nutrients as much as possible out of the system.” The system will also have a secondary process to further remove nutrients after it finishes in the first tank environment. “We’ve been doing some work with a wastewater engineer Ron McMurtrie to make sure that we’re locating our septic system in the place where the soils can handle it” and where there is plenty of space to meet the government guidelines and regulations for healthy waste water management.  “Additionally, we’re looking at how might we integrate … downhill of that ways to capture some of those groundwater flows from the septic field but as well just rainwater coming off our paths and routes into a treatment wetland to further clean the water. So that by the time our wastewater hits Hague Lake we have removed if not all the nutrients, almost all the nutrients, that we’ve put into the ground,” explains Ian. 

Trails

As soon as the Seniors Society purchased the 51 ares of land that will become home to Rainbow Ridge, they opened up the old logging roads which ran through that private land. Right now that road peters out into a little muddy footpath that connects it to Cemetery Rd. The vision is to move the trail off the roadway and greatly enhance it for public use and create a continuous trail system from Siskin Lane to Smelt Bay as well as to create trails from the Seniors Village through Rainbow Ridge to the shops and services in Manson’s Landing, explains Sandra. The project has already applied for some grant funds to begin developing this trail system. Sandra also points out that this is a way for the community to get involved by helping to figure out the best routing as well as they will need volunteers to help build it.

Rezoning: The Key To Unlocking B.C. Housing Support

The B.C. Government has recently made it possible for communities to zone for rental housing. However, on Cortes Island the zoning by-laws have not been updated since 2002, back when Cortes was part of the Comox- Strathcona Regional District. The Official Community Plan for Cortes, which was updated in 2013, shows a vision for Manson’s Landing that would be more village-like: walkable between post-office, Community Hall, grocery store, and homes and thus a bit more dense than just a single home with carriage house on two to any number of acres like most of the island. Rainbow Ridge and the Seniors Village fit within that planning, yet the current zoning doesn’t yet reflect that plan. With the zoning laws as they are the “SRD is only able to give approval on projects that require greater density on a case by case basis,” says Aniko Nelson, Senior Manager, Community Services of the SRD.  

The Rainbow Ridge put in their application for rezoning the Strathcona Regional District (SRD) a year ago, October 2019. “We had hoped that it would already have gone to public hearing,” says Sandra, “but because of COVID happening when it did, our spring public hearing got postponed.” It is now going to public hearing on Thursday, October 15th, at 2pm at Manson’s Hall. “And the important thing to know is we are still still adhering to COVID protocols.” It’s a new kind of public hearing where people will be able to participate remotely and a speakers list will be composed of those people who want to participate that day. To attend the public meeting virtually, neighbours may go to https://srd.ca/meetnow/.  Those who are unable to attend the public hearing can still have their voices heard by writing into the SRD via email at planning@srd.ca or by snail mail at SRD, 990 Cedar St., Campbell River, V9W 7Z8

The public hearing isn’t a chance to ask questions or learn more about the project, so that morning, October 15th, there will be a drop in at the Hall from 11 to 12:30, where the posters, site plans, unit design, and studies will be up and Ian Scott and Sandra Wood will be available to answer questions. This information is also available all the time on cortescommunityhousing.org 

Inspiring the Future

Ian Scott, the development consultant who has worked with many local government and nonprofit housing societies says that working with Cortes has been: “really inspiring… “It is a local group taking charge of the situation.”  He acknowledges that “in some places, you have municipal housing corporations or even some provincial kind of housing agencies, but that doesn’t exist really here.” That didn’t stop the Cortes Island community from meeting a need. “There’s a certain value in having the kind of wherewithal of the community stand up and make it happen,” he says.  Local groups like the Cortes housing committee:  “are residents, they are people who are going to live and work in this community for years and years to come, and they have …much more inherent built-in interest in making this thing work for the community as a whole and the community has an opportunity to get involved and influence and direct where things go now and but also in the future…. It’s a really exciting opportunity for Cortes,” says Ian.