The absence of rental housing in Ucluelet is leading to an absence of available staff for local businesses and a group of local entrepreneurs are pitching a creative plan to help buck that trend.
The Pac Rim Home Development Cooperative is asking the town’s municipal council for a 2.5 acre parcel of land to build a neighbourhood of approximately 40 non-market, affordable rental homes.
“We don’t want an apartment building,” cooperative president Randy Oliwa told the Westerly News. “We want to build something that is really, really cool…We’re looking at it as if it’s like a resort for employees.”
The project is expected to cost roughly $8 million and the plan is that it would be operated by the cooperative and businesses would be able to purchase an equity share, which would entitle them to one unit to house an employee, according to Oliwa.
“If you don’t want to be a member anymore, that equity share goes back into the pot and a new business can purchase that share for the same value that the share was originally purchased for,” he said.
He said that the cost of an equity share has not yet been hammered out and will rely on a variety of factors, however the monthly rent for each home is expected to be $800 a month.
Oliwa said each business that buys into the program would be eligible for one unit of housing and businesses could purchase additional units if the 40 units are not all taken up in the first round.
He added though that no matter how many units a business purchases, each business will only have one vote on the cooperative.
“What we didn’t want to have was a big business come in and take 20 units and dominate the board. So we put policies and procedures in place so that doesn’t happen,” he said.
He added that if the demand comes in higher than the supply, the cooperative will go back to council and ask for more land.
He said the cooperative staff-housing idea has been bouncing around Ucluelet for over a decade, but the ball didn’t start rolling until 2019.
“In early 2019, I dusted off a piece of paper that was handed to me probably a decade earlier by a local business owner,” he said, adding the business owner has asked to remain anonymous. “He had this idea and he wrote it down and handed it to a bunch of councillors over the years and a bunch of business owners and community members and it just never got any traction.”
He said that when he started sharing the idea with other business owners, it struck a chord.
“Every time I talked to somebody about this idea, every business owner was like, ‘We’ve got to do this,” he said. “What I started to do was pull together some like minded business owners and community members that had been in the community for a long time and really understood the community.”
He said the group began meeting regularly to brainstorm and found a non-profit organization called Cooperatives First that helped the vision take shape.
“We were off to the races. They really helped guide the development of the cooperative structure, our business model and it was a great fit,” he said.
“Honestly, we could not have done this if we did not find Cooperatives First.”
The team was continuing to hash out the plan and reaching out to potential funding sources in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the efforts were halted until the fall when they got back up and running and incorporated as a not-for-profit housing cooperative in September.
“That really gave us some strength,” he said. “We started to get some really great doors opened.”
He said the cooperative has presented to Ucluelet’s municipal council twice during the spring of 2021 and is requesting a 60 year land lease agreement of 2.5 acres of land and $50,000 from the district’s online accommodation platform tax, which was launched by the province in 2018 and is collected by vacation rentals like Airbnbs with the funds intended to pay for housing projects in resort municipalities.
Oliwa said the cooperative has given suggestions for different parcels of land that could work and added that it needs the land before it can start applying for funding from federal and provincial grant sources.
“There’s so many funders out there that want to see this thing go,” he said.
While those negotiations are ongoing, the cooperative has launched a survey to gauge interest in the project and collect data from local business owners on its website at www.prhdc.ca.
“We need the data. We need to hear from you. We know the issue is out there, but now it’s time for you to raise your voice,” he said. “We need people to raise their voice now and get behind this project, because it’s not enough to say, ‘We need to do something about housing.’ It’s right there in front of us. We just need everybody to fill that survey out, give us some data, give us some good positive feedback and help us be successful.”
He added businesses are struggling to retain long-term employees as residents who move to the area in the fall and get hired lose their homes to the short term rental stock by spring.
“Businesses that are not thinking of housing as another arm of their business are going to be left behind. You’re going to continue to struggle,” he said.
“How do you grow and develop your business? You create a great, safe, affordable place for people to come and have a nice landing pad so that they feel welcome in the community, they’re not going to have to worry about moving, that’s completely out of their mind and they can focus on their job, focus on bringing their family here, focus on growing Ucluelet.”