An emotional appeal for help from a family living in a recreational vehicle in Lake Cowichan who have nowhere else to go was recently made to the town’s leaders.
Amanda Hieta, her husband who is on disability, and their two young sons have been living in a recreational vehicle on private land in the community, which is against the town’s bylaws, since last spring. They received a letter from the town in August stating they are living illegally and must move their RV if they continue to live in it.
Hieta told the town’s committee of the whole meeting that the family has been forced into an untenable situation as there is a limited amount of affordable and family-friendly rental housing in the Lake Cowichan area, like much of the rest of Vancouver Island, and despite their best efforts, they can’t find a place to stay in the community where she grew up.
She said the family has been checking Facebook every day and working closely with three real-estate agents in efforts to find available rental space in the community since November, 2022, when their previous landlord told them they had to move so a mould problem could be dealt with.
Hieta said her family ended up living with her mother in a two-bedroom condo in Duncan, but found that four people living in one room while her sons had to commute to Lake Cowichan for school and sports wasn’t working for them.
“After being denied for countless rental spaces due to the fact that we have children or that they wanted my husband’s disability cheque handed over to them, we started searching for other options,” she said.
“We did a lot of research before we ended up investing in our (RV) which is insured for full-time living. We have been looking for a place to permanently place our (RV) but, unfortunately, everything around this area is either 55-plus, seasonal or not child friendly.”
Hieta said when the family received the letter in August informing them they can’t live in their RV on private land, she immediately met with town staff to try to determine if there was anywhere they could go with their RV so they would be compliant with the town’s bylaw, or some other place to rent.
She said she was given a number of people to contact, and she called them all but was not offered any realistic options, and she was then told by town staff that she should appear before council and explain her situation.
“All we’re trying to do is keep a roof over our family’s heads,” Hieta said.
“We are in no way trying to break the rules, but we have been forced into this situation because there is a very limited amount of affordable family friendly rental housing here. I can see how much this town has changed over the last few years with all the airbnbs and seasonal rentals and it looks like Lake Cowichan is turning into a vacation town and not a town that relies on its own community as it has in the past.”
Shelley Cook, executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association, spoke to council on rental housing issues earlier in the meeting.
She said, like many other communities across B.C., available rental housing in the Cowichan Lake area is tight, with average rents for many short and long-term rental units now in the $2,200 a month range, which is close to rental prices in the rest of the Cowichan Valley.
Cook said that even a household with two reasonable incomes would be hard pressed to afford a one-bedroom unit in current markets in Lake Cowichan and the Cowichan Valley.
“We see a situation that not only says things have reached a crisis point, but there is a complete disconnect between what currently exists and people’s ability to pay for it,” she said.
“There are many people living in housing that is too expensive, in both home ownership and rental housing. We could potentially see an increase in homelessness as a result that would see increases in people living in cars, campers and other types of housing that many don’t consider appropriate, as well as people leaving areas they want to live in because they can’t afford it.”
Cook encouraged Lake Cowichan to advocate senior levels of government for more social housing, to invest in portable housing and put aside land wherever possible for housing.
Coun. Lorna Vomacka suggested using the town’s Lakeview Park Campsite to help deal with the housing crisis in the area.
She said the camp grounds are closed for about eight months of the year and she wonders if it’s possible to use the camping sites as monthly rental pads that would have sewer and water connections and regular garbage pick up to help people who need it.
“This issue is only going to get worse and any other housing options coming down the pike are going to take years to turn the keys, so I want to know whether we can look at some other options,” Vomacka said.
Mayor Tim McGonigle said the town will hold further discussions on how to best deal with the housing crisis in Lake Cowichan.