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Building for inclusivity: Bowen Island Resilient Community Housing

The 27 units at BIRCH will have varying levels of government subsidy
BIRCH concept drawing - May 2021
BIRCH is planning a rental housing development on Miller Road.

We’ve all seen what has been happening to the cost of living on Bowen Island. Rental accommodations are disappearing quickly, and long-time residents of the island are struggling to find an option that will allow them to continue to live here. Many of those who arrived on Bowen in the ‘70s and ’80s are contemplating departure or have already left. We are becoming an island that is heavily skewed to the wealthy – and it wasn’t always this way.

So, how to start an article about that wonderful initiative, Bowen Island Resilient Community Housing (BIRCH). Bowen Island Community Foundation (BICF) is pleased to have contributed $15,000 to this organization, funds that will be used for public art in their new rental housing complex and for paying consultants who can help this project to completion.

The photo accompanying this story provides you with an image of what this 27-unit rental building will look like when it is completed, hopefully about two years from now. But what’s really fabulous about BIRCH (and, by implication, this building) is who it is designed to serve.

The 27 units at BIRCH will have varying levels of government subsidy – 20 per cent will be set at “shelter rate,” 50 per cent at rent geared to income, and 30 per cent at the low end of market. To give you an idea of what this might mean in 2021 dollars, a one bedroom at shelter rate would rent for $375 monthly, for $700 at rent geared to income, and for $1,260 at the low end of market. Current planning envisions four studio, 10 one bedroom, 11 two bedroom, and two three-bedroom apartments. 

How will BIRCH determine who has priority in renting these 27 units? That is a work in progress and Bowen Islanders will be asked for their input. Both board chair David McCullum and executive director Robyn Fenton stressed that it will be important to provide opportunities for those who have contributed to the life of the island – and that they will be developing an anonymized scorecard, with the assistance of the community, to allow them to make these decisions. 

Will 27 rental units be sufficient to meet the needs of our current population on Bowen? I think we all know the answer to that question. It’s a welcome start, but only a start. We need more rentals, market and non-market, and, more generally, a greater diversity of housing options (Ocasa Construction’s new rental building, taking shape on the property above the Museum and Archives, is a most welcome addition).

For the folks at BIRCH, the 27 units are only a beginning. They have their eye on other properties in the area of the Cove and are contemplating rent-to-own options, as well as other possibilities that give more options for islanders who do not have the funds to afford the current prices of Bowen real estate but want to stay here on the rock.

So, let’s hope that BIRCH can secure funding from BC’s Community Housing Fund and/or from the federal Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. It’s an important step in ensuring that we are able to sustain a Bowen Island community that is both diverse and inclusive.