Is this #GoodbyeSaltSpring?

Life for most of us here has been pretty hard since the pandemic.

Particularly for many who were just barely making island life work before Covid, the combination of forces that smacked into the whole world has made life even more difficult for many on Salt Spring.

“I am living in a mobile home with my two kids for $1,700 a month. I can barely afford gas and food, and I work more than full time hours. I barely get to hang out with my kids because I am working so much just to keep a roof over their head.”

In the past 3 years of working on the issue, I’ve come to learn more about the drivers of our housing crisis than I ever really wanted to. From the wider trends of what happens to desirable communities when market forces are allowed to run without any controls, to all the ways the Islands Trust, CRD, North Salt Spring WaterWorks, and even private homeowners contribute to our very local version of the problem here.

“We have moved nine times. Lived in a one room vacation rental with three kids once, a tiny basement apartment for a year until we finally found something else. Have lived with mould, rats, bugs, and bad water. Took us eight years to find stable housing.”

At the start of the summer, the Islands Trust, one of our local governments that can do something, was finally set to take action. Well sort of action. Trustee Laura Patrick formed a “Housing Task Force” to make recommendations, and attempted to get housing and community to become official priorities of the new Trust Policy Statement, the long term vision for the Trust.

Then something unexpected happened – backlash.

Led by what seemed to be conservation minded people – mostly from the smaller islands but also from some prominent Salt Springers – voices started to argue that the Trust had no business addressing housing at all. The Trust should only focus on protecting the environment, they said. If we have housing, people will flock here, ruining our environment, was their argument.

And this being Salt Spring, argue they did: at Trust meetings, directly lobbying Trustees, posts on the Exchange and all over social media, in the pages of the Driftwood, and even in the Victoria paper.

“Moved away after 41 years. Too expensive. No affordable housing. Worked three jobs to raise my kids. Nowhere I can afford to live now. Everything is too expensive.”

To many of us these well meaning “environment only” arguments smack of privilege, classism, and selfishness. For an island already seen by many as pampered and elite, this is not a good look. It’s certainly pretty far away from climate justice.

But even taking our “pull up the drawbridge after I get in” mentality aside, you have to start to ask yourself: in the face of a worsening social crisis that our island has ignored and avoided over decades now, what kind of community do we expect to remain here, when few of the islands’ working people can afford to make it work much longer?

“I work at Lady Minto hospital and we currently have a critical staff shortage and are at a crisis point due to limited staff being able to stay here long term. Many of our staff are struggling to stay due to the housing crisis. We have lost countless staff just in the time I have been here.”

So this summer we decided to do something about it. The quotes interspersed with my words in this article are all real stories submitted by members of our community. And they’re heartbreaking.

In July our organization, Salt Spring Solutions, asked people who were considering leaving the island, or who had already left, to share their stories. By the end of the summer, we had received an incredible 58 stories.

It turns out our hunches were true: residents of Salt Spring from many walks of life, many of whom have lived here for decades and serve as the lifeblood of the community, were leaving.

“There is nothing for the average working family. We work full time, my partner works in the trades. He is paid well. We have no options if our current rental were to go away. We feel stuck, we feel scared for our children’s future.”

The first step in finding a solution to a problem is acknowledging the problem exists in the first place. And friends, our community has some work to do on this front.

So as befits an arts loving community, we have created an exhibition: quotes, excerpts, and photos from these stories have been made beautiful by a talented local designer and posted, in a quilt like fashion, on the (generously donated) windows next to Salt Spring Coffee. It’s a powerful display of what’s going on in our community today.

Come on down to the window next to Salt Spring Coffee in the month of October and check it out. Talk about housing solutions with your friends. Sign our housing petition demanding local governments break down their silos and work together on bold solutions for the housing crisis.

“I’m worried that community – which is the major driving factor of wanting to live on Salt Spring – will be gone and replaced by the ultra wealthy, with many unoccupied homes. Then what’s the point in staying?”

We believe that once this smart and compassionate island sees what the housing crisis is doing to our fellow community members, that arguments against finding environmentally friendly ways to keep our diverse workforce living here will start to fade away, and we can get to work on real solutions.

This article was originally posted on the Salt Spring Exchange.

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