Put Aside Fear When Seeking Housing Solutions

One of our volunteers published this opinion article in the Driftwood on Oct 10, 2018.

Last week the Driftwood published two opinion articles about the housing crisis that I found concerning: “Hard choices lie ahead” by Frants Attorp, and “Bending rules to create housing not an option,” by David J. Rapport and Luisa Maffi.

The three authors propagated a number of myths about who is impacted by the crisis, what those working for solutions are proposing and how solutions fits within the mandate of the Islands Trust and the norms and values of our special community.

Whether they intended this or not, I and many others felt their arguments injected needless fear into the community and dampened the newfound sense of hope that working together we can finally and responsibly address the problem.

Let’s start with the people we’re talking about here. I’m not sure the authors have really felt into who is most impacted by the housing crisis and heard their stories, or really reckoned with the scale of the problem. I’ve spent the summer with colleagues at community tables listening, reading stories submitted to our website and hearing so many heart-wrenching stories. These are women, seniors who have lived here for 30 years, often post-divorce, sleeping in their cars. These are healthcare workers who have to take fewer shifts due to commuting times from off-island. These are farmers who can’t house their workers, and businesses who have to reduce hours because they can’t keep staff. These are teachers who teach our kids and grandchildren and they are families with kids who bounce from rental to rental, often sleeping in tents, cars, hotels and god knows where in the gaps.

We are not talking  about the classic definition of “homeless” people and all its perhaps unsavoury connotations here. Yes, we have very high homelessness here but the crisis is 10 times bigger than that. It hits at the very centre of the working and increasingly middle class who live and work alongside each and every one of us. The accusation that the island is being overrun by “itinerant people who come here with no job and no accommodation” is a dog whistle that lacks any data to support it. The only people I see massing on our shores are more millionaires building bigger mansions. “Who is going to sell them their groceries?” is a comment I’ve heard over and over again this summer.

The second myth is to imply there is a zero sum game between protecting the environment and supporting humans to live well within it. This is an old, tired argument. All five affordable housing projects proposed here have been thoughtfully designed to include world-leading environmental protections from rainwater catchment to conservation measures. More dense housing, in appropriate places, is widely acknowledged around the world to have significantly less climate and transportation pollution and resource impact than the rural sprawl we happily support now. Other solutions identified, like eco-village zoning for collective living and farmworker housing, would require farms to maintain strong environmental protections and practices.

Water is indeed the biggest issue on Salt Spring, and creative water solutions and conservation must lie at the core of each and every housing solution proposed. But what about water justice? Why must the entire burden of water conservation be put on any future affordable housing stock? What about conservation for the properties here already or the many new homes being built right now? That’s the imbalance the current system supports.

Finally, it is inaccurate to say our laws and policies can’t rise to this challenge because Islands Trust’s mandate is only to preserve and protect the environment. The Trust in fact has a dual mandate, to protect island ecosystems AND our unique island culture. No one that I know who is looking for housing or working on solutions isn’t an environmentalist at heart, and few of us live here without a deep respect for the incredible nature those who came before us so wisely protected.

Adapting our planning guidelines to allow for new ideas that help people while continuing to protect the environment is very far from the “anarchy” or “throwing existing rules to the wind” the authors threaten will happen with change. The creative solutions we will come up with here will help us live within ecological limits while ensuring a socially connected and fair community that is in fact more resilient in the face of future challenges and change coming our way.

Maybe we can even figure things out here that will be recognized and emulated around the world. Remember when Salt Spring was known big, bold ideas that address the world’s biggest problems?

The affordable housing crisis is indeed one of the biggest problems of our times. It wasn’t created overnight, nor will it be solved in only a few years. But we are going to solve it, and to do so we need islanders to first believe we can do it.I for one believe a community this wealthy in creativity, compassion, resources and intelligence can do this. But to move forward we need to see the whole picture, move beyond simple black-and-white arguments, drop the fear of change and learn to trust one another.

Jason Mogus is a Salt Spring resident and consultant to advocacy campaigns around the world. He helped co-create to work with others in addressing affordable housing issues.

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