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BIRCH housing project continues in ‘holding pattern’

BIRCH hopes units will be ready by end of next council term
BIRCH concept drawing - May 2021
BIRCH concept drawing -current as of June 2021

An anticipated Bowen apartment complex still remains several years away from completion as funding efforts continue.

Bowen Island Resilient Community Housing (BIRCH) chair Robyn Fenton provided an update to the Housing Advisory Committee (HAC) last week on the project, which will sit on Lot 3 off Miller Road behind the Health Centre. Upon completion it’s expected to provide more than two-dozen rental units of varying sizes.

But while construction was originally scheduled to begin in 2020 with a completion date sometime this year, revised dates now put the project several years out. Fenton says the earliest it could be finished is three years from now, but it will probably take longer.

“We’re just in a holding pattern in terms of funding at the moment,” says Fenton. A January 2021 application to BC Housing’s Community Housing Fund was unsuccessful, as BIRCH found themselves up for consideration with 190 applications. In the end, 50 were chosen for funding.

Fenton says BIRCH is waiting to hear when BC Housing will open up their next round of funding, and that they’ll have an application ready. “Certainly with the feedback that we’ve got from BC Housing, and that council’s got from them, we still have reason to be optimistic that we could get this funding,” says Fenton.

If BC Housing gets on board with the project, it would signal confidence to another source BIRCH is looking to secure, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

“We’re very confident that if we do get this BC Housing funding, that CMHC will also very likely be a partner, and there’s some good funding and financing that comes with their support,” says Fenton.

BC Housing funding essential to BIRCH’s prospects moving forward

But securing this federal funding relies on obtaining BC Housing support first. “They’d (CMHC) like another major partner. And every time we run the numbers, we really need the funding from BC Housing to make the numbers work,” says Fenton.

“Sadly, even with free land, with the construction costs and rental rates, the numbers don’t work. So we need the funding from BC Housing because they have quite a significant amount of equity that goes into the project,” she adds.

There are recent positives though, including a partnership with the Lookout Housing and Health Society organization, which has extensive experience in the supportive housing sector. BIRCH and Lookout have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together moving forward.

“Generally it’s going to be that we’ll work together to develop, and Lookout will likely take the lead in applications because of their financial background… but BIRCH will still very much be involved,” says Fenton. “And then in the end Lookout will likely be the operator of the building. So that’s where we’re moving toward.”

Schematic work has also finished on the building, with 27 units currently estimated. Fenton says this may change slightly based on whether Lookout will require office space in the building, and the results of a septic review currently underway.

Like many properties, BIRCH was affected by the Snug Cove Sewer System reaching capacity, making the addition of a septic system necessary. The review will see how much land would be necessary to install this system on a remainder lot bordering BIRCH property.

Establishing a septic plan, and negotiating an extension with the municipality on BIRCH’s agreement to lease, are the organization’s main points of focus while they wait for the next round of funding to become available.

Coun. Michael Kaile, a member of the HAC, says the fact the homes won’t be finished until almost the end of the next council’s term puts added emphasis on finding alternative housing solutions now.

“For anyone with immediate needs, this is going to be a project that they’ll just have to set aside. Because this is not in any way going to come to fruition (soon),” said Kaile, noting the delay was not a reflection of the BIRCH team’s efforts.

Coun. Maureen Nicholson, also an HAC member, says it’s difficult for small rural communities to compete province-wide with projects in bigger cities that will result in more total units. Both Nicholson and Fenton say they’ve raised this point with the Ministry of Housing, and suggested there be separate application streams for large and small communities.

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