Tofino’s housing crisis is pushing the town’s ‘hidden homeless’ population into the forefront.
Dr. Carrie Marshall said residents with nowhere else to go are seeking emergency shelter at the Tofino General Hospital.
“We have patients that come in that we are providing accommodation for, essentially, and food. There’s no medical need. We admit them for social reasons. There’s not a criminal element to not having a fixed address, so police don’t want to be taking them to cells,” Marshall said. “We are increasingly getting more and more patients that there’s literally nowhere for them to go…Usually they are transient, or no-fixed-address patients, that fall between the hospital and criminal cells.”
Frustrations and concerns over the lack of housing in town have been a perpetual mainstay on council’s docket and the issue was a key point of emphasis during October’s municipal election campaign.
Petra Hansman, a “concerned rental citizen of Tofino,” is frustrated by what she believes has been a lack of action by Tofino council to fulfill the promises made during the campaign trail.
“There has been a palatable hush over talk of creating affordable housing, I fear that district and council have lost momentum in this very important issue,” she wrote.
She suggested developers could be interested in creating housing projects, but council “needs to be more flexible and create more allowances” while working with developers to find solutions.
“You as councillors and mayor were employed by the townspeople to alleviate this issue. Our town is desperate for solutions and shovels in the ground today. It’s time for investments made and solutions implemented. Please act before our gross population moves to Ucluelet and beyond. Enough is enough,” she wrote.
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne told the Westerly News that the district conducted a housing needs assessment in 2015 that highlighted a significant need for housing, but did not quantify or describe in detail the gap of suitable housing for the community’s most vulnerable residents.
“Until Dr. Marshall reported to us in the council meeting, I did not know that the hospital has admitted people overnight so that they have a place to stay—presumably a safe, warm and dry place to sleep,” she said.
“Dr. Marshall has highlighted an absolutely critical need that clearly must be addressed but, for me, this news also indicates the need to build more awareness and dialogue about the issue of homelessness and ‘living rough’ on the West Coast, an issue that is practically invisible to mainstream society.”
She said Tofino’s housing shortage is well known and is impacting distinct segments of the town’s population in different ways.
“Some people can afford market rents or mortgages, but they simply cannot find a place to rent or a home to buy. Many, many, others simply do not make enough income to afford market rents and mortgages—should they be so fortunate as to even find a vacancy or a home for sale,” she said.
“This group is often called the ‘missing middle’ and is likely the gap that is affecting local businesses and Tofino’s economy the most.”
She added the town’s most vulnerable residents need “deeply subsidized” housing, of which there is little in Tofino.
“We need to fill the housing gaps at all levels, but there are different strategies and partnerships needed for each type of housing,” she said.
She said council is working on creating “the best conditions possible” for affordable housing development through local government tools, like zoning, allowing increased density and removing minimum home sizes.
She added council is also lobbying the provincial and federal governments for desperately needed funding and policy changes and suggested Tofino’s was a key voice in the province’s decision to allow taxes collected by AirBnB rentals to go towards affordable housing initiatives last fall.
“A third category of action is actually building housing and, while that is relatively rare for a B.C. municipality, we are in the thick of it with the Tofino Bible Fellowship and the Tofino Housing Corporation preparing for a new residential neighbourhood on DL 114,” she said, referring to the district’s collaborative project to create 50 new housing units, which received $500,000 from the provincial government last March.
She added Tofino could also look into potential taxes being used in other municipalities,
“Like the vacancy tax in Vancouver and the so-called speculation tax,” she suggested. “These taxes are controversial, but should we be considering them in Tofino to help cool market prices or to at least add extra funding to our affordable housing reserve?”
She cautioned the community against expecting affordable rentals and homes to spring up in short order.
“I’d like the public to understand that as frustrating as it is that things move slowly, it helps to ask questions, listen to Council, staff and developers and try to understand the trade-offs and compromises that we consider when we make decisions about housing.
“It took decades for B.C. to get into this serious affordable housing [crisis], and we won’t be able to solve it overnight,” she said.
“There is no single ‘best way’ to tackle Tofino’s housing issue, rather it’s a combination of many things—from increasing supply directly through the Tofino Housing Corporation and indirectly with willing developers, moderating the need for new staff accommodation by carefully considering any new commercial development, lobbying the provincial and federal governments for funding and policy changes, to enforcing and reviewing short-term rental rules, to using zoning tools to create better conditions for affordable housing.”
She added that “unless we are willing to compromise on density, parking requirements, and setbacks,” the cost of land, building materials, labour and service infrastructure will continue to push “even modestly sized and appointed homes” out of the financial reach of average Tofitians.
“If we truly want people of all income levels and stations in life to have dignified, affordable and adequate housing, there is likely no possible way to build affordable housing without increasing density in ways that Tofino is not entirely comfortable with. This is not easy for people to understand and accept, and I had to learn a lot about the true costs of development before I realized and accepted it myself,” she said.
“Such changes will change the rural nature and feel of some streets and sites, but we are quickly approaching a point where we have to live with change in the community we love so we can support the people who make this such a great place to live.”