Housing Gabriola: Amid setbacks, housing society says it’s ‘disappointed but not deterred’

From permits to funding, the barriers to getting the Paisley Place affordable rental complex off the ground have been many.

This is part two in our mini-series Housing Gabriola, part of a wider investigation into rental affordability, Making Rent. Read part one here. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest updates on our reporting.

After members of the volunteer-run Gabriola Housing Society (GHS) secured a generous donation of land to build a homegrown, 24-unit affordable rental housing complex in the summer of 2019, called Paisley Place, the group was seemingly on a roll.

Related story: Housing Gabriola: This group of citizens is building an affordable housing complex

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In the months that followed, the GHS received a $30,000 grant from the Vancity Community Foundation and another donation of $100,000 from an anonymous community member.

By October 2019, the GHS was in a position to hire technical professionals—hydrology, wastewater, sewage, ecology—to figure out the next steps for Paisley Place. 

But securing the total funds and permits needed to build an ambitious affordable housing project in a small island community of about 4,000 citizens is no easy feat. 

“The way that zoning stood when we acquired the land was that we could have gone in the next day, leveled all three lots and built any kind of institution—say a concert hall or clinic or anything like that—and it would not require any rezoning permissions,” says Jenni Gehlbach, a longtime resident who serves as secretary and communications director for the GHS. “It would have just been a matter of getting building permission, as anybody does when they’re putting up a new building. But we needed it to be rezoned so that people could live there.” 

Wild mushrooms and moss are displayed in the forest on Gabriola near the future site of Gabriola housing development Paisley Place
Gabriola resident Claire Dineen posted this image of fungi and moss to a Gabriola housing group expressing concerns about the environmental impacts of Paisley Place. Photo by Claire Dineen/Facebook

Affordability, density and the environment

As the GHS set out to rezone the property for residential use, one major concern for many members of the Gabriola Island community was, and continues to be, the human impact on the island’s fragile ecosystem.

Gulf Islands are considered by the Islands Trust to have a limited capacity for human density, especially when it comes to water, and ecological conservancy is as strong an objective for local residents as affordable housing. Gabriola is one of the most densely populated Gulf Islands, and this is while numerous lots remain undeveloped and many homes unoccupied. 

An Islands Trust survey shows that connection to nature is a central value for northern Gulf Island residents.
A 2019 Islands Trust survey, called Islands 2050: The Future of the Trust Area, shows that connection to nature is a central value for Gulf Island residents. Graphic by Islands Trust

At the same time, affordable housing and the ever-escalating rental crisis are hot topics on many of the Gabriola Island public forums found on Facebook.

In addition to at least two popular Gabriola “community bulletin boards,” with a membership that matches the island’s total population, community members have created two housing-specific Facebook groups: Gabriola Housing Issues and Gabriola Island Inclusive Housing Village.

One of the immediate concerns expressed by a segment of the population was the potential loss of the existing Douglas fir forest that currently dominates the Paisley Place property. This again taps into an ongoing issue between members of the public and the Islands Trust because even though the trust itself considers the Gulf Islands to be fragile ecosystems, ironically the organization, unlike municipalities, does not have the power to limit the number of trees a private landowner can remove.

(The local Islands Trust committee conducted a series of surveys about land use planning, housing and the environment earlier this year and later released 28 recommendations, including one to better regulate tree-cutting on private property.)

In January of 2020, while drawing up the site plan for Paisley Place, the GHS was able to create a layout for the development that would preserve 50 per cent of the existing forest, whereas if the property remained in the hands of a private landowner it could have been legally clear-cut with zero public say in the matter, explains Gehlbach.  

A drawing of the proposed site plan from November 2020 displays a unique configuration of buildings surrounded by green space. Image submitted by GHS

As the COVID-19 pandemic moved in, the GHS secured another $110,000 from the BC Housing’s Project Development Fund enabling them to hire architects and organize public consultations to move the project forward.

Pandemic deepens housing crisis

Then the pandemic worsened the housing affordability crisis. Housing prices soared and urban folk close to retirement began selling their primary properties, similar to what was underway in Nanaimo. 

Related: Rents in Nanaimo have skyrocketed. Here’s why.

This triggered an exodus of sorts, as Gabriolans like myself observed urbanites moving out of the city to buy homes on the island, displacing many renters. As a result, many long-term community members find themselves in a panic when facing the prospect of having to move off of the island with no knowledge of where they could end up next.

“When I moved to Gabriola I was drawn by what I saw in a community that treated its most vulnerable members with dignity and respect,” Gabriola Island resident Leslie Sanderson posted on the Facebook group Gabriola Island Community Board back in March, an island social media hub with over 4,000 members. 

“Now I watch as friends are forced to leave because of a lack of affordable housing, and belittled because they can’t afford rent that exceeds their monthly income.  My family is in constant struggle because one half cannot find housing.  What do we do?  All pack up and move?” Sanderson went on to say. 

“My family rented here for 13 years, and I’ve watched the housing crisis get worse and worse during that time,” commented resident Wendy Stok in the Gabriola community group. 

“When we moved here, rentals were affordable and easy to find, jobs not so much. Many people like us have stuck it out, rebuilding our lives around this place because we love it and it’s home. It breaks my heart to see the fabric of this community unraveling because people can’t find homes. Every single week names are added to the list of locals having to leave their homes. It’s tragic,” Stok continues.

Anxiety levels continue to run high in the community, and Gehlbach is quick to admit that the Paisley Place project is only one approach of many necessary to address the looming housing shortages.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket,” Gehlbach admits. “The 2018 [housing] assessments that were conducted identified well over 200 people in what they were defining as in acute housing need of one sort or another.”

“And GHS, at the very most, will be creating 24 units, right?”

A forested road of Paisley Place is the site of the future Gabriola Housing complex.
A forested road will eventually lead to the site of an affordable housing complex for Gabriolans called Paisley Place. Photo submitted by GHS

‘Delayed but not derailed’

Yet, even with community support and a mandate to address the problem, the need appears too big while the bureaucratic processes move far too slowly. 

As the GHS continued to work to secure the bylaw changes and approvals from Snuneymuxw First Nation needed to advance Paisley Placem they turned their efforts to BC Housing for access to its Community Housing Fund (CHF) for funding.

Then in early June of this year, BC Housing announced its selections. According to Gehlbach, there was only enough funding available to support the construction of 600 units, and yet the CHF received 2,000 applications. Unfortunately, Paisley Place and GHS did not receive the green light to move forward.

In a published letter to the Gabriola community with the heading “DISAPPOINTED BUT NOT DETERRED!” GHS president Nancy Hetherington Peirce announced: “We’re determined to see affordable housing built on Gabriola and will re-apply to the next round of BC Housing’s Community Housing Fund, which is likely in 2022. The project is delayed but not derailed.”  

The letter went on to thank all the community members who have been supportive of the GHS and its work in the community.

Following up with Gehlbach it’s hard for her to hide her disappointment, even behind her sharp British wit. She confesses that the solutions aren’t in any way keeping up with the looming advancement of the problem.

Asked what their next course of action should be, Gehlbach feels that the most logical and hopeful approach is to begin developing the land and reapply for funding next time around, citing that one of the affordable housing projects that did receive the green light on funding was in Tofino, a project she describes as “shovel ready,” where infrastructure such as road access, septic and water had already been put in place. 

Gehlbach says she is encouraged to know other members of the community are looking at innovative approaches to the housing crisis on Gabriola Island, exploring everything from intentional communities, to privately-owned “mini condos,” to tiny home collectives.  [end]

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