It’s not every day you see a community begging to be taxed, but that’s the situation many residents of B.C.’s most populous Gulf Island have found themselves in.
A group of Salt Spring Island residents say they’re upset the province did not include the community in its recent expansion of the Speculation and Vacancy Tax, which they say could help address an increasingly dire housing shortage.
“Salt Spring is in a housing crisis, and frankly crisis is not overstating it. Ferries are being cancelled, businesses just can’t hire anybody,” Daniel Wood, general manager of the Salt Spring Cheese Company, told Global News.
“Basically we’re being left off (the tax) so the privileged elite can save a little bit of taxes, where the ordinary community and working folks in the island are being forced to commute and live in substandard housing.”
Wood said the housing problem on the island was so bad that despite the labour shortage, businesses no longer even consider job applications from off-islanders, because they know there won’t be anywhere for them to live.
Wood is among nearly two dozen Salt Spring business owners and community groups calling on B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson to include the island in the tax.
B.C. introduced the tax in 2018 in an effort to incentivize owners of vacant properties to either sell them or rent them out to increase housing stock, and claims it has freed up about 20,000 units.
Last week, the province moved to expand the tax to Squamish and Duncan, North Cowichan and Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. Several B.C. hotspots, including Whistler and the Gulf Islands were not included.
Salt Spring business owner and housing advocate Rhonan Heitzmann said the lack of available housing has left the community critically short of workers, to the point where the community “is collapsing right now.”
“It’s not too late to include salt spring island in this tax. We’re different than the other Southern Gulf Islands. We have a large community with a lot of services, hospital, schools,” he said.
“We’ve been vocal about wanting to be a part of this – and so, that’s why it feels like a slap in the face to have other communities just right next door to us be included in the tax – it puts more of a target on our back for people to come and get tax free vacation properties on Salt Spring and the Gulf Islands.”
According to the group, up to one in five homes on the island sit empty for more than half the year, affecting every part of the local economy.
Nowhere is the housing shortage as obvious on the island as in its healthcare sector.
Salt Spring is home to the small Lady Minto hospital, which serves the island’s 12,000 residents, along with people on nearby islands and the bustling tourist trade.
The facility is meant to run with a staffing complement of 130 workers, but is currently about 40 short, according to Roberta Martell, executive director of the Lady Minto Hospital Foundation.
“It’s very damaging, we need to get people back into these positions — and it’s quite a downward spiral,” she said.
“People are leaving their job at the end of the night so they’re working extra hours. And they come back in the morning to the same work that they left because there was no one there in the interim.”
The foundation has gone to extreme measures to try and fill the gaps, renting a house as a “landing pad” for new hires, and even purchasing an old motel and converting it into housing for healthcare workers.
In a statement, the finance minister said the province was already making moves to expand the tax, which was originally conceived to apply to urban areas.
Further expanding it to places like the Southern Gulf Islands would represent a “bigger step,” Robinson wrote.
“These are the communities we are adding right now, and the work does not end here. The Province will continue to study the effectiveness of the speculation tax, speak with community partners and make any further adjustments the tax needs, including expanding to other areas, to ensure it’s doing what it’s built to do – provide homes for people where they live,” the statement reads.
“We want to see how this new expansion to smaller communities goes to inform future decisions about potentially expanding it to other areas.”
In the meantime, Wood and others on the island have no plans to back down.
“There are so few other proposals that are making progress for addressing the problem,” he said.
“It’s not very often that you get small businesses calling up all of the officials they can find asking them to tax their communities more, but that’s where we’ve come to in this situation.”