Forty-five percent (45%) of the respondents renting homes in rural areas say they pay more than they can afford, according to the SRD Electoral Areas Housing Needs Report.

Statistics from the 2016 census support this. 41% of renters and 9% of home owners in the Strathcona Regional District (SRD) paid more than 30% of their income on accommodation.

“This survey sheds light on an issue that is kind of hidden. People that are living in unstable housing aren’t necessarily telling everyone about it because it can be embarrassing. ‘I can’t afford the right housing,’ or ‘I’m living in an overcrowded place,’ or ‘I’m having to choose between good food or paying my rent,’” said Mark Vonesch from the Cortes Community Housing Society, one of the key stakeholders in this study.

Affordable housing NOW! – by fumigene via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

“I think it’s the number one issue affecting Cortes. We’re at a point in our history where  we can address this or we can just let it slide and go the direction that Hornby has gone, or some of these other islands that no one can afford to live on anymore. They are retirement places, where people come to holiday.”

The housing survey identified retiring seniors as the #1 area of population growth throughout the SRD.

Anecdotal evidence points to a second demographic. During COVID, a large number of professionals also moved to the country and are now working from home.

“Electoral Area D is the largest by population and the fastest growing, increasing 18% since 2011, while Electoral Areas A, B, and C increased 9%, 8%, and 8%, respectively.” – SRD Electoral Areas Housing Needs Report.

There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of housing units used as short term rentals (STR). In 2016, there were 153 within the SRD. This number more than quadrupled, to 635, over the next five years. By 2021 there were 177 STRs on Quadra Island and 82 on Cortes Island.

Some short term rentals are used as Airbnbs:

  • 5.8% of the housing stock in Area C – 97 of the 1,663 dwellings
  • 4.2% on Cortes Island – 34 of the 804 dwellings
  • 2.7% in Area A – 13 of the 474 dwellings
  • 2% in Area D – 37 of the 1,853 dwellings.

The remainder are summer dwellings that are rented out while owners are away.

Growth of housing assessments in the four electoral areas – Courtesy the SRD Electoral Areas Housing Needs Report.

A much larger number of dwellings are unoccupied most of the year. Close to a third of the island’s houses (253) were vacant when the 2016 census was taken.

This is more than twice the number of dwellings than the 75 rental and 40 retail units the housing survey states are immediately needed on Cortes Island.

A Cortes Island respondent to the survey pointed out the 20 units at the Rainbow Ridge Community housing project are “certainly a start, but it is years away from fruition and already has a massive waiting list.”

84 of the 120 respondents on Cortes live in single detached homes, which means most of the remaining 36 can presumably identify with this statement:

“There is a HUGE lack of affordable housing on Cortes. People are in constant search of a place to live; some are elderly, many are young. People live in cars, vans, tents, derelict boats. People request a place to bring a trailer or a trailerable home.”

Someone added, “There are a lot of Airbnbs on Island that take away housing from the locals who live here year-round. It is extremely hard to find a stable year- round housing situation because of this. Even when those Airbnbs are sometimes rented out during the winter months when tourism is low, they often are not adequately insulated or suited for being lived in in the winter.If there was an incentive for landlords to provide safe, adequate, year-round housing to year-round residents of Cortes perhaps there would be more rentals available.”

Another Cortes resident added, there are “no year-round rentals or affordable property, or homes for sale on Cortes. Many homes sit empty for months/years at a time. Vacation rentals and Airbnb take priority over rental properties for local residents. High rent for untenable cabins; unhealthy living conditions. Too many renovictions and seasonal rentals. People have nowhere to go in the summer. Housing insecurity makes it difficult to have job security.”

Vonesch added, “I hear stories of people having to quit their jobs because they can’t find housing for the summer. I know people that are living under a tarp. I know seniors that are living in a tent.”

The situation is marginally better on Quadra Island, where 25 of the 129 respondents did not live in single detached houses.

A Quadra resident wrote, “I’m aware of likely, a few dozen ‘living rough’ people. Homes in the bush, home on a boat – anchored so no dock fee. Other trailers are parked at the back of peoples properties- somewhat out of site. Others living in their vehicles rotate to spots at trail heads, road ends, parking lots.”

Another added, “I lived in my van and couch surfed for two years, and squatted in an art studio for another two years before I found an affordable place to live on Quadra. Too many people are being priced out of their rental homes because Airbnb is such a lucrative market for people who have the means.”

Someone suggested that there needs to be a bylaw specifying that only spaces in your main residence should be rented out as Airbnbs.

A Quadra resident pointed out that the only way some seniors can survive is to rent their houses out as Airbnbs during the tourist season.

Vonesch said, “Housing insecurity dramatically affects more marginalized groups like women and children, and single parents. I know multiple people who are currently employed on the island, but unable to find suitable housing. I know at least one person who has been actively looking for a rental housing for over a year, businesses are struggling to find seasonal year round staff because there isn’t appropriate housing. It’s not just a human rights issue affecting the health and wellbeing of people it’s also affecting our economy.”

“If our economy struggles, then these challenges are just going to increase. We are going to see Cortes move to a bedroom retirement community and I think there’s evidence of that in the south of Cortes.”

“We’re at a real point, an opportunity here  to address the issue on a community level. One of the things that is clear is Cortes needs a new official community plan. Our last one was in 2012. We need to bring the community together, educate ourselves on what the challenges are and look at a broad base of solutions that are going to address it.”

“If people are struggling with housing and are struggling economically to pay for their housing or living in inadequate places they’re less likely to be able to hold a job as well or less likely to contribute to society in other ways, through volunteering, through contributing to other parts of the community.”

“If we can address the housing issue, we’re going to see benefits in lots of other areas.”

“One thing that’s also clear is that it’s not one solution. We do need to build brand new rental units. We also need to look at  the tiny home movement, that makes it affordable for someone  to have their own unit as well. That’s part of it, but we also need to look at units that we already have that aren’t being used. We also need to look at the non-market solutions that include government support for building housing.”

“One of the interesting things that this study points out, but has been replicated multiple studies in Canada and BC, is that investments in housing have economic benefits that outweigh the cost of doing it. Spending tax dollars on subsidized housing reduces our costs more than that what we invest in health services, in criminal justice system, all of  the government services that we provide.  Housing is a good investment. It’s something that we need to do as a government.”

Graph – Courtesy Housing Needs Report.

“It’s something that we need to do as individuals on Cortes,  make these investments, make the changes that need to happen.”

“One of the things we love about Cortes is that we are an intergenerational island. Young people hang out with older people. There’s mixed ages  that come together for community events.  If we continue on the trend that this survey is pointing out, we’re going to lose more young people. We’re going to lose young families.  We have a real danger of Cortes shifting in a direction that I think the majority of people don’t want.”

“This is a problem for all of us.” said Vonesch.

Top photo credit: Sleeping on the red couch by Michael Mandiberg via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)