KNOX – For some, small-town life is becoming the answer to big-city prices

Rob Butterfield. (Image: Times-Colonist)

ROB BUTTERFIELD banged his head against the wall in Vancouver for a decade. “You work your ass off for nothing,” the 34-year-old says. House prices, rents, everything conspires against young people trying to build a meaningful life.

So he moved. So did his friends. “People went back to small towns. It was the logical thing for people my age to do. We didn’t have a choice, many of us.”

That was four years ago. Butterfield and his girlfriend uprooted and moved to Galiano Island, a retiree-heavy place that welcomed them with open arms (and aching backs).

Young folks? C’mon in! “The island made it apparent to us that it wanted us,” he says.

Others of similar age have followed them through the open door.

It would be overstating things to say that (relatively) young people are flooding onto the island, but there has been a noticeable increase. Vancouver Flight, the exodus of 20- and 30-somethings from an unaffordable city, might breathe new life into Galiano and greying coastal communities like it — if they can solve a housing problem of their own.

Over the past generation, Galiano’s story has been echoed in small communities up and down the coast. When the mills closed or the chainsaws stopped or the fishery sank, families pulled out. Taking their place, or at least snapping up what became vacation properties, were empty-nesters.

Nice people, but that still left Children of Men towns without enough workers to pump the gas, or enough kids to field a team. In Galiano, where the 2016 census showed 40 per cent of the 1,000 residents to be over age 65, it could be a challenge just finding someone fit enough to climb the ladder to fix the roof.

In some places — Youbou, Echo Bay, Woss, Union Bay — the schools closed, a stake through the heart. Tahirih Rockafella, 39, feared that would happen to Galiano. When she was growing up there, she had 100 classmates, but by her early 20s, there was talk of pulling the plug on the school. “Oh my gosh, what will we turn into?” she thought.

So, yes, count her among those who are happy about the rebalancing of the community. The K-8 school has just under 50 students now. The island has three dozen pre-schoolers. South Galiano Fire Chief Sean Luttner has a healthy roster of volunteer firefighters (including Rockafella) between the ages of 23 and 55 — a contrast to those rural departments where the firefighters can all remember where they were when Paul Henderson scored in ’72.

Now, if only they could find a place for everyone to live.

There’s not much of a middle tier to Galiano’s housing. Either you’re in the lovely, leafy single-family home that city dwellers imagine when dreaming of retirement, or you’re renting a back-forty cabin more suitable to the Unabomber. The only multi-unit rental is a 16-unit seniors’ complex.

Part of the shortage comes from the development restrictions of the Islands Trust, whose mandate is to keep the green bits green, and therefore discourage high density. Part has to do with vacation rentals — homes that might once have been rented out year-round are now devoted to more lucrative short-term stays in the summer.

“The vacation rentals have impacted our housing pool,” says Rockafella, one of Galiano’s Islands Trust trustees. She knows of 53 Airbnb properties on the island.

Twenty-eight-year-old Cassandra Bonham, who arrived on Galiano in August, is an example of the lots-of-work, not-much-housing reality.

“I got a job the same day I got off the ferry,” she says — she started at the Hummingbird Pub that night. Bonham and her partner spent two weeks tent-and-hammocking it, then moved into a fifth-wheel trailer on someone’s property. They lucked out when somebody else offered them a summer-rental house for the winter, but they have to shift back to the tent trailer when the house goes back on the Airbnb list.

It could be worse, though: Bonham knows people in the tourist trade who spend the summer living in parking-lot vans and tents in the forest.

Jane Wolverton, another Islands Trust trustee, says that kind of story is familiar: “People rent from September to May, then they’re out.”

Efforts are being made to ease the squeeze, though. A non-profit group is working with B.C. Housing to build a couple of low-rent six-plexes on land owned by a community group.

For those looking to buy, the island’s prices are lower than those in Victoria, but still a challenge when most of the jobs are in the service sector. Butterfield says you could find a house for $300,000 when he arrived, but good luck finding anything like that now. The deals have been snapped up. “There was a window that was slowly closing, and there were a number of people who dove through that window.”

Butterfield and his partner, a gardener, are in a good situation with a benevolent landlord, as occasionally happens when the island decides it wants to keep someone. Butterfield plays music and is about to release an album that he recorded in a studio he built himself (never could have done that in the Big Smoke).

He also works at Galiano Island Books; that tiny Galiano can support an independent book store says a lot about A) the number of tourists who pour through and B) the island’s demographics — smart, literate, artistic.

The island is a welcoming place for those who show they want to be there, he says. Want to start a garden? “People will give you the seeds, and they’ll help you turn the soil.”

It’s pretty easy to cobble together jobs in the tourism sector and doing the physical stuff — cleaning gutters, sawing wood — that older residents would rather leave to someone whose knees still work.

Also, the ability to work online has opened the island to young families. “People who can work remotely or just spend a couple of days in town are able to do so,” Wolverton says.

Still, she says, they need to consider other barriers. High school means a 7:30 a.m. water taxi to Salt Spring, getting back at 5:15 p.m. It’s the same length of day that bus-riding farm kids endure in the Interior, the difference being that Galiano parents can’t fetch Junior from school if something comes up. “You as a parent can’t get in your car and scoot over to Salt Spring,” says principal Darcy Deacon.

Nor do Galiano teens get to sign up for hockey or band or follow other pursuits — explaining why there are few teenagers on the island. Families move on. It’s left to adults to do the kind of after-school jobs commonly done by kids.

Island life also requires a level of self-reliance unconsidered in the cities. That’s shown in the store shelves that stay empty for a couple of days if the tourists clean them out, and the roads made impassable by downed trees after windstorms like the one that hammered the coast in December.

“It’s such an amazing community,” Butterfield says, “but it doesn’t work for everyone.””

Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.

© Copyright Times Colonist

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