The Regional District of Mt Waddington has issued a housing needs survey to north islanders. (Submitted)

North Island mayors speak out on Regional District of Mount Waddington’s housing needs survey

The housing needs report will be completed by Nov. 15, a six-month delay from the original deadline.

Northern Vancouver Island has been struggling with a housing crisis, but now there appears to be a beacon of light on the horizon.

The Regional District of Mount Waddington (RDMW) has issued a housing-needs survey to find out what gaps need to be filled in each municipality, with the hope that the data collected will help produce a solution to the rural areas longstanding issues.

The housing-needs survey will end up painting a realistic picture of who’s living in the North Island areas, what housing they have, and what housing they will need in the future, thus creating a broader regional housing strategy that is required by the provincial government.

Low rental vacancy rates and little-to-no seniors housing are two of the key problems that the region is trying to address.

When dealing with a housing crisis, solutions might seem obvious—build more houses, attract developers, incentivize rentals, for example. But good data reveals a more nuanced need, says Angela Smith, Mt. Waddington Heath Network’s coordinator.

”Let’s take Port McNeill for example. The population there has been decreasing, so how can rental vacancies be getting worse? Well, we have a situation where as a population ages, the kids move on but the parents stay home. So you end up with houses that used to have four to six occupants, now with only mom and dad in them because the kids have moved on,” Smith said.

Because there isn’t appropriate seniors housing to transition into, population decrease does not lead to available housing.

“There’s a bubble moving through the population that’s showing itself in the housing situation. That’s what the housing survey will help to identify. Some of these solutions aren’t immediately obvious,” Smith stated.

READ MORE: North Island Seniors Housing Foundation is progressing towards its goals

The housing strategy is a provincial requirement for every community, but the North Island municipalities determined it was better to work together to create a regional strategy.

A coordinated plan will also put each community in a better position to successfully apply for funding than if they had worked on five separate strategies.

“It’s not something any one community can tackle alone; we needed to assess this as a region,” stated Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom, adding that seniors housing in particular is a concern for Port McNeill.

Smith agreed with Wickstrom’s point of view, stating that rural areas tend to produce more quantitative information.

“People are good at telling their stories,” Smith said. “They’re heard, but stories aren’t as effective as quantitative data to apply for funding, or attract investment.”

Wickstrom added that in her opinion, “we need assisted living, and independent living. Affordable, appropriate housing for seniors. I’ve also heard people say they’re looking for houses to transition out of. They’re retiring and are looking for patio homes, townhouse-style homes.”

The communities know what housing is needed for the most part, but they also need hard data to back up the development strategies.

“For us, we wanted to developed seniors housing, but we weren’t successful in getting funding, and there aren’t a lot of developers looking at coming here to develop seniors housing complexes,” said Wickstrom.

There is funding available that the region hasn’t been taking advantage of, Smith noted, pointing out potential funding from BC Housing, the BC Non-Profit Housing Association and the provincial government. Data collected for the housing needs report will help RDMW get better help to address the housing gaps.

READ MORE: B.C. rental crisis goes far beyond impact of short-term rentals, say experts

Port Hardy Mayor Dennis Dugas said he hopes the survey will help identify the housing needs in his community.

“For a long time it seemed like the rental providers, their places weren’t full and they were concerned about it. But then something turned around and now it’s full,” Dugas said.

Anecdotally, people say it’s quite hard to find rental places in Port Hardy. Vacant suites are snapped up quickly, and there aren’t that many to begin with. Population has risen, yes, and three years ago a massive fire at the Creekside apartment displaced dozens of people who struggled to find new homes.

Dugas also shares the seniors housing concerns.

“The North Island Seniors Housing Foundation has been working for a number of years now to build a facility so that seniors don’t have to leave their community,” Dugas said. “So that’s where the survey will really help us, to find out how many people are really in that position who will be looking for a place to transition into. We don’t want them leaving Port Hardy, so what can we do to fill that gap?”

Alert Bay Mayor Dennis Buchanan says the COVID-19 pandemic has turned their rental shortage into a crisis.

“Many of our people are single, and with the shortage of rental accommodation, they were basically couch-surfing and had nowhere to self isolate,” Buchanan stated. “Many places that used to be rental are now Air B&B, because owners can make more renting nightly than they can on long term tenants.”

Even before the pandemic hit, Buchanan’s office has been working on new bylaws to encourage new long-term rental builds via laneway or carriage houses.

It’s hard to reduce the number of short-term rentals once they begin, but with zoning they can control new builds.

Port Alice Mayor Kevin Cameron confirmed his area of the North Island is also facing the same housing issues as the rest, noting specifically that there’s not a lot of vacancies for renting and seniors’ housing is a problem in the village.

The regional housing strategy report will be completed by Nov. 15, a six-month delay from the original deadline.

The timeline was extended because community consultations had to be re-imagined in light of physical distancing requirements.

The housing questionnaire has been distributed as pamphlets to all five RDMW communities and can also be completed on the RDMW website: http://www.rdmw.bc.ca/.

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