As more tourists flock to Haida Gwaii off the northern coast of British Columbia, the remote archipelago’s largest village is facing an unusual problem.
Despite a declining population, Queen Charlotte village is experiencing a housing crisis, Mayor Greg Martin said.
“Housing is tight, we’re pretty close to zero vacancy,” he said. “Ironically, over the last 20 years we’ve had a reduction in population.”
Visitors are drawn to the moss-covered rainforests and historic totem pole and longhouse remains that mark some of the oldest examples of coastal First Nations villages.
Haida Gwaii is a seven-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert, on B.C.’s northern mainland. Prince Rupert is 750 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.
In recent years, the tourism season has grown from three to six months, and in conjunction some long-term housing options are being converted into short-term vacation properties on websites like Airbnb, Martin said.
A recent housing report funded by B.C. Housing and the Gwaii Trust Society identified increased demand from tourists and the growth of short-term rentals as one of many factors at play in the shortage that also included an increase in non-resident ownership, little land availability and limited funding for non-profit housing.
As of March, there were 39 rentals listed on Airbnb, up from 29 listings in early December, it said.
The 2016 census counted 500 private dwellings in the village.
The shift to short-term rentals has left the community with the predicament of wanting to welcome visitors while finding ways to protect and increase housing stock.
“It’s a delicate balance, a very delicate balance,” Martin said.
Population declined in the village to about 850 by 2016 from 1,200 in 1996, in line with the shrinking of logging and commercial fishing, Martin said.
Many of the houses remain, but they are occupied by fewer people.
Some younger people have left the village in search of employment, while Martin said empty-nesters like himself live in larger homes with few options to downsize.
The housing report found 30 per cent of respondents said they struggled to pay rent every month and considered it either expensive or very expensive.
Lorelei Krueger, owner of the Ocean View Restaurant in the village, said she had to reduce hours of operation when she couldn’t find enough staff to move to the island.
“It’s really hard to recruit people to work here when there’s nowhere to live. We were lucky enough to recruit a chef (from Vancouver) three weeks ago who was very lucky to find a place,” she said.
While Krueger doesn’t want Airbnb hosts to lose money, she said she’d like to see some kind of balance between short-term and longer-term housing availability.
Limiting the rentals doesn’t seem to be an option. A proposal from council to restrict short-term rentals to properties where the owner or a longer-term tenant also lives met with fierce opposition.
“There’s just too much push back, we were really surprised at the number of people who were opposed. We decided to pull the residency requirement,” Martin said.
In a letter to council ahead of its vote, Airbnb host Ole Olsen said he believes short-term rentals have been wrongly targeted. Olsen said as a young man on a limited income, buying his cottage on Queen Charlotte was a challenge and Airbnb helps pay for it.
Before Airbnb, he said he experienced problems finding long-term tenants, extensive damage to his property and a lengthy eviction process.
Albert Baques and Steven Pedersen wrote that as property owners who moved away from Haida Gwaii and now visit six to 10 times a year, their home would sit empty if they weren’t able to offer it as a vacation home when they aren’t there.
Now council is looking at other ways to grow the housing supply. It successfully lobbied the B.C. government for 19 modular housing units, which the mayor said should be built early next year.
Martin said he’s lobbying for a vacant office building downtown to be turned into a fourplex. He said he also hopes a recent $4-million bicycle and road network planning grant will open up new land for developers.
If no solution is reached and restaurants continue to have trouble recruiting staff, he joked the village could adopt a new slogan: “Come and visit beautiful Queen Charlotte. Bring your lunch.”