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I was obsessing about housing recently, a 5 a.m. dark night of the soul. What is it, I wondered, about rentals in Tofino, this small Vancouver Island town at the end of a long road with a massive tourism draw? A town where a number of factors have driven the cost of rental so high, and the vacancy rate so low, that good people are leaving town for want of any housing at all, affordable or not.
The need for housing has reached fever pitch, with many businesses forced to curtail open hours during the madcap summer season due to staff shortages. But in talking with long-time residents, Tofino has always had a tough housing situation, going back decades.
Some months earlier, I was sitting in a local coffee shop, eavesdropping on a group of young women the next booth over. They were discussing who to take on as a new roommate . A name came up. "We can't give her the room," one said. "She's only been in town three months. She hasn't suffered enough."
It was a new, rather Biblical idea to me, that in Tofino you must suffer for your housing, that it's both expected and required, even by the renters doing the suffering. But now in the 5 a.m. darkness it suddenly made a lot of sense, and I concocted the "three unwritten laws of renting in Tofino." Let me run them by you.
When I moved to Tofino in 2009, I assumed the rental game went like this: You arrive, you scramble for a few months building connections, getting the lay of the land … and then everything clicks, you find a place and live there happily for as long as you like.
I quickly learned that's not the case. Living in this beautiful place exacts a price, and part of that is the first law: Thou shalt suffer for thy housing.
This is such a given in local culture that locals hardly notice it. It's one of the hallmarks of Tofino life: rain, tourists, pricey food and the "Tofino shuffle" – the twice-yearly forced move when the house-owner turfs you out of your suite to do summer-vacation rentals, and then accepts you back in in the fall. The shuffle is in good measure what birthed the moniker "Tuff City," and either you accept and adapt, or you leave.
The second law deals with our response to the first: Thou shalt suffer in silence.
I don't mean that we don't complain – far from it – just that we keep it private. Friends of the turfed-out renter get an earful, but the complaining rarely goes wider, never makes it into the public sphere as a letter to the editor, radio rant or (gods forbid) street rally.
In recent years, active Facebook groups have sprung up around these concerns but they mostly consist of heartfelt pleas for housing. Occasionally, a thread flares up discussing what the town is doing about its housing shortage or, more likely, why nothing is being done. Rental housing in Tofino is strictly an individual problem – it always has been, and it stays that way no matter how many individuals are involved. The town has long embraced a weirdly complacent fatalism toward its housing shortage, a calculated indifference born of its having been this way for decades. (Municipal efforts are under way, but have yet to bear fruit.)
That resignation derives from the third law: The worthy shall be housed when they have suffered enough.
This is the foundation myth of housing in Tofino: that, through a combination of luck and persistence, every worthy seeker finds housing eventually. It's the local equivalent of karma, and for a long time it did seem to be true: Everybody landed somewhere eventually – at least, everybody who didn't leave first. But then, leaving is pretty much the operating definition of "unworthy."
The third law couches a form of social Darwinism, pitting the renters of Tofino, young and old, against one another in quiet, cutthroat competition.
But the third law has been crumbling recently, as more investment money flees Vancouver to buy houses in Tofino, and as the Airbnb, shared-economy explosion pushes ever more monthly suites to more lucrative nightly vacation rentals. The worthiness bar is rising, in other words, and in fact approaches the absurd: Even those with professional, year-round jobs are leaving town for want of acceptable housing, which leaves the vital but lower-paid service and retail workers in a hard place indeed.
This may be the sea change in our rental-housing situation, because the third law has always meant this to us: We don't need to "fix" our housing problem because the worthy always find a place, which is pretty clearly no longer the case.
These days housing is a political hot potato almost everywhere. Elected politicians (of which I am one, in my first term on municipal council) have ignored or fumbled Tofino's affordable housing file for decades, apart from one big push in the early 2000s that fell to political change. Now it has reached crisis proportions, and actions that should have been completed decades ago are slowly beginning.
I have observed Tofino for 20 years and lived here for nine, and I too feel the brunt of the housing situation. In 2017, between house-sits, pet-sits and couch-surfs, I moved 19 times, and it's not unusual for me to jolt awake at 5 a.m. in a panic about where I'll be living next month.
But what preoccupies me more is the cost to my community of this constant, widespread background housing worry: this wondering when the eviction notice will arrive; the shock when it finally does; the scramble to find a new place; the pack-up, the move, the unpacking; and then back to step one again, wondering how long this place will last.
Tuff City townsfolk are tough, and they press on. But in a better-housed Tofino, how much of that time and energy would instead go into parenting, say, or cultural expression or volunteering or social life – in short, back into the community?
I hope it's not too late to find out.
Greg Blanchette (still) lives in Tofino, B.C.