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Tofino celebrates affordable housing project

West Coast politicians were all smiles last week as Tofino cheered an affordable housing project that’s expected to house around 150 residents this year.
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Dena Cole spoke eloquently and emotionally while explaining what her new home at Tofino’s Headwaters affordable housing development has meant for her and her family during a celebration held on Friday, June 7. (Andrew Bailey photo)

West Coast politicians were all smiles last week as Tofino cheered an affordable housing project that’s expected to house around 150 residents this year.

Headwaters North, a four-storey apartment building with 35 rental units opened late last year and Headwaters South, a three-storey building with 37 units, is expected to open this fall.

The buildings neighbour each other at 363 Peterson Drive, a forested area roughly 10 minutes from the town’s centre.

More than 150 residents are expected to move into the new affordable housing unit this year, paying no more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.

The two buildings were paid for with $7.9 million from the provincial government through BC Housing and $9.4 million from the federal government. The District of Tofino gifted the formerly district-owned Peterson Drive property, valued at $1.8 million to the Tofino Housing Corporation and Catalyst Community Developments and the THC provided about $780,000 to the project with Catalyst contributing $180,000.

Stakeholders gathered between the two buildings on June 7 to celebrate the project’s success.

Following a prayer and blessing from Tla-o-qui-aht Elder Levi Martin, THC executive director Kelly Lin served as the celebration’s MC and said the two new apartment buildings will relieve some of the tension on Tofino’s housing demand.

“Tofino is a small resort community that many, many people love and many, many people want to stay,” she said.

Predictably, the most powerful words spoken during the event came from a local mom who said her Headwaters North unit has provided a “safe, stable and affordable home” for herself and her two teenagers.

“The three of us are all very thankful for the housing project and the opportunity it gives locals to stay in Tofino,” second-generation Tofitian and new Headwaters North tenant Dena Cole said at the event. ‘I no longer spend nights worrying about getting kicked out of staff accom or to make room for short term rentals. I’m now finally paying an affordable rent and able to save for my family’s future.”

She said she had moved away from the community but returned 24 years ago and though she was initially able to secure staff accommodation, her “housing lucky streak ended” in 2022 when she unexpectedly lost her job and the housing attached to it.

She said she found a two-bedroom suite for $2,400 a month where both her teenagers had a bedroom and her bed was in the dining room.

“This accommodation was less than ideal for the three of us and two dogs…We made do, however my savings were dwindling on rent, fast,” she said. “The house sold eight months later and I was back on the search for a home for the kids and I, which is a scary situation in Tofino as we all know.”

She said the only option she could find at the time was a travel trailer that “was certainly not ideal” for her and her teenagers, adding the three of them lived in the trailer for about a year before being accepted at Headwaters North and moving in in March.

“We were lucky enough to move into a new bright and very spacious unit,” she said. “It was definitely stressful times over the past few years. I spent hours worrying about my kids having to stay with their dad full-time while I couch-surfed at the ripe old age of 47.”

Mid Island - Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne said Tofino’s success at building affordable housing serves as an inspiration across the province.

“I have the privilege of traveling around British Columbia and I speak to people who are living in communities large and small and, of course, everybody’s heard of Tofino, but when I tell them the story of how we made this happen, it serves as such an inspiration for people and they know that it can happen,” she said.

She added the event’s list of speakers provided “just a sampling” of the many people involved in bringing the project to life.

“We all know just how beautiful this place is and we have almost a million visitors coming every year, but what sometimes I think visitors don’t see is what it really takes to make a town like this tick,” she said. “That takes so many people who are here and all of the people who couldn’t be here today because they’re actually out working and they’re busy raising their families, living their lives, working for all the different businesses and organizations that make this town a real community.”

She added helping “those folks who call Tofino home” find safe, secure and affordable housing is paramount to helping the community thrive.

“Affordable housing, of course, is key to their ability to stay here and make this tourism economy and the other parts of our economy really work. Affordable housing is absolutely essential,” she said.

She added many Tofino residents have stories to tell about the various ways they’ve sheltered themselves while trying to plant their roots in the community, often hoping to find a boat, tent, or basement to call home temporarily.

“They have slowly made their way through different forms of housing and some folks, 150-odd folks, this year are going to be so lucky to be able to move into this place,” she said.“This project, Headwaters North and South, are amazing examples, I think, of the work that not just the province is doing, but that we’re all doing together: all levels of government, all aspects of communities.”

She noted the two buildings offer a mix of studio to three-bedroom apartments and that 16 units are wheelchair accessible and tenants will pay no more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.

“They’re really buildings that were designed for West Coast living in mind, so lots of indoor storage space for kayaks and bikes and surfboards and strollers and that helps people get outside,” she said.

She suggested the NDP’s Homes for People plan is the largest housing investment in BC’s history at $19 billion.

“We know there’s more work to do to provide people with the homes that they need,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing that work. The Community Housing Fund altogether has $3.3 billion with a goal to build more than 20,000 affordable rental homes for people who are living with moderate or lower incomes across British Columbia.”

She added that accompanying work includes tackling speculation, helping municipal governments make their development approval processes more efficient and trying to slow the transformation of existing housing into tourist accommodation.

“I’m really proud of the work that’s been done and there’s so much more to do,” she said.

Tofino Housing Corporation chair and municipal councillor Duncan McMaster agreed.

“The battle’s not over. It will probably never be over. It’s going to take the collective effort of everybody to keep this effort going and make this place an affordable place to live for the people that live here,” McMaster said.

Courtenay - Alberni MP Gord Johns of the federal NDP congratulated the provincial NDP government for its efforts, suggesting B.C. is “building half of the non-market housing in Canada right now” and calling for a round of applause.

“Today is a special day. I think we all understand how important safe, secure and affordable housing is,” adding he grew up in Co-op housing. “I know what geared-to-income housing does not just for the parents, but for the children, taking the pressure off of their parents. It’s significant. It’s so important.”

Johns recalled moving 10 times in one year in his early days in Tofino.

“Yes a boat, a tent, a basement, you name it,” he said, harkening back to Osborne’s words. “That’s not acceptable for any human to have to go through that insecurity of housing.”

He also spoke to Osborne’s words around Tofino’s housing project setting the standard and inspiring other towns to find ways to shelter residents.

“This is going to be something that communities look to when they look at improving the lives of others, showing that dreams can actually happen. This has been a dream that I can see everybody here has been a part of. That’s pretty special. We need to do this a lot faster next time, we need to do way more of it and I think we got the right provincial government to do that, he said.

Municipal councillor Al Anderson served as acting mayor at the event, noting he had been the town’s mayor in 2001 and helped launch the first iteration of the Tofino Housing Corporation.

“This is a really exciting day for me,” he said. “This was a seed we planted many years ago when I was mayor of Tofino…We started out with a dream.”

He thanked the town’s past and current councillors and mayors for their support to keep the dream alive and push it to fruition, as well as to the community for trusting the, sometimes contentious, process.

“There’s some thanks to give to our entire community for getting behind and supporting the politicians that brought this forward. I’d also like to acknowledge the neighbourhood that has put up with some construction noise for quite some time. We’ve heard about that on council and we thank them for bearing with us while we got these projects off the ground,” he said.

Tofino’s Poet Laureate Janice Lore wrapped up the event with poignant words around “the complexities of homelessness and affordable housing and the weighing of costs and benefits.”

“Two opposing things can be true at the same time. A bird returns to nest in a tree that is no longer there. A bear wanders into a construction site looking for berries and its summer trails. The long shadow of a highrise falls across your castle wall. People say adapt, migrate or die. At the same time, a family gathers around the hearth of a long awaited home. Reassembles the broken mosaic of their lives. Mends a ruptured future. And, people say in our community we look after others.”

She said she is a close neighbour of the development and had been impacted by the construction noise, but lauded the efforts to bring affordable housing to the community.

She added she moved to Tofino 30 years ago and the ‘Tofino Shuffle’ was well underway at that time.

“In the fall, a relieved population moving en masse into empty vacation rentals and seasonal homes. Exchanging summer uncertainty for winter security,” she said. “But, every spring the same desperate scramble to find shelter in trailers, tents, cars, leaky boats and every year a few more residents, weary, bitter, dislocated, the basic bones of home broken by relentless scrabble loaded their heartwood into a U-Haul, leaving town like a truckload of trees cut from a raincoast lot.”

She said she had walked up to the Headwaters North site when people were moving in and the mood was lighthearted and festive.

“The lifting of worry and struggle, hefting belongings out of hardship into optimism and sanctuary,” she said.

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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