Haida Gwaii Housing

Photo Credit: Kara Sievewright (makerofnets.ca)

Haida Gwaii Housing

🕔May 04, 2018

Everyone in Queen Charlotte has a housing story. It has become a conversation at nearly every dinner party, community meeting and on every flight to YVR.

Rentals are scooped up by word of mouth before hitting the market. Buyers are knocking on doors, asking homeowners if they’d consider selling. Friends are opening up their their lawns and driveways to those willing to camp. Elderly residents are living in long-term care at the hospital. And then there’s the invisible homeless, staying in vulnerable situations because there is no other safe, affordable option.

But those who have lived here for most of their lives say it hasn’t always been this way.

Housing has become a growing concern in recent years, even though the population is declining. Fewer homes are available for rent or for sale, and more dwellings are sitting visibly empty for large portions of the year. Many are in need of major repairs before being livable.  Nearly everyone has a rodent or mould story, or both.

“It’s the same issues as the Lower Mainland,” says Kim Claggett, member of the Queen Charlotte Heritage Housing Society (QCHHS). “Airbnb, people buying houses that sit unoccupied, people getting pushed out based on affordability, homelessness.”

Haida Gwaii is an attractive place to live and vacation. Properties are being purchased by off-island buyers with deep pockets, willing to pay a premium for land or a recreational property. And as more and more tourists come to Haida Gwaii every year, accommodation options dwindle. Private rentals are being converted to Airbnb, with 39 listings in Queen Charlotte as of April 2018, 20 of which are entire homes. With no bylaws to regulate Airbnb, it’s a balancing act between the rights of private owners and the needs of the community. “There’s lots of talk about regulations, but I’m not sure what exactly the municipality can do,” says Claggett. 

Then there’s the issue of employee housing. Housing has become a major determinant in attracting and maintaining qualified staff and young families. Some employers aid in finding or supplying housing to staff. But the common misconception is that these homes are sitting empty and could be made available to the public. Although government agencies own or lease a total of 44 dwellings in Queen Charlotte, only four of them are currently vacant. All four are expected to be filled with new staff in the next few months.

“This isn’t surprising,” says Claggett. “But,” she adds, “the amount of invisible homelessness in our community is. The people with the least resources, that are already living in vulnerable situations are experiencing the biggest impact.” Lack of affordable housing amplifies other challenges in low-income individuals’ lives—employment, social networks, and health. It perpetuates a feeling of hopelessness. According to the 2016 census, 19 percent of Queen Charlotte residents are in the core housing need, meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on shelter costs, but the actual number could be higher.

To address the need, several societies in Queen Charlotte offer support and housing options. QCHHS operates the Heritage House, a subsidized 10-unit building for seniors or residents with disabilities or low-income. QCHHS also rents three single-family homes to low-income families and owns a small office building they are hoping to convert to affordable housing suites. Funding is the key and QCHHS will lose its government subsidy for Heritage House in 2021. This past winter, QCHHS took the first step in addressing this, conducting a Needs and Demands Assessment for the Village of Queen Charlotte. “Now we’re presenting the Needs and Demands to BC Housing to leverage funds to convert the office building to affordable suites,” Claggett explains. “Though the timeline on this is unknown.”

In early April, QCHHS also held an islands-wide forum to share concerns and discuss community-led solutions. Speakers presented different housing solutions in their respective communities, such as co-op housing on Tow Hill and a transition house in Masset. Other solutions discussed included a Queen Charlotte housing coordinator, a south-end transition house, and a housing/empty house strategy.

“The solutions are not simple, but we are a small community, and we have the power of community,” says Claggett. “I’m an optimist. We are creative, innovative people. We can find a solution. We can put people in houses.”

— Allison Smith