This post was written using a transcript from Tony's February 2023 interview with Gibsons Mayor Silas White. It’s been edited for clarity.
TONY: Born and raised a Sunshine Coaster, Silas White spent time in Vancouver and Toronto to attend university and to build a business. He returned to Gibsons in 2005, and since his return, Silas has volunteered with organizations like Voice on the Coast, Sunshine Coast Arts Council, and Sunshine Coast Community Futures. Silas has also served as a Sunshine Coast School Trustee, a town of Gibsons Counsellor, and most recently as Mayor of Gibsons. Silas, thank you very much for sitting down with me today and taking the time to talk.
MAYOR WHITE: Thank you for the invitation.
Gibsons housing shortage
TONY: Silas, I meet a lot of professionals that are moving to the Coast, such as teachers and nurses, and their struggle is that the careers they're moving over here for aren't necessarily paying them enough to afford the accommodation. What's the town doing at the moment to address the challenges with affordable accommodation for these professionals?
MAYOR WHITE: Sunshine Coast wide, we need more housing diversity on the coast. Those kinds of professionals aren't in a position to be subsidized by BC housing, to have the affordable housing developments that could be subsidized by government or the federal government either.
TONY: So they're not the target. Affordable housing, it's below a certain income level. It's not just a general kind of fund for everyone.
MAYOR WHITE: Definitely, yes. For people to qualify for those, it does have to be below a certain income level. And of course, we desperately need housing for people who work in retail and work in service industry as well. So when we have the small amount of affordable housing, which is being contemplated on the coast right now, including 40 units on Shaw Road in Gibsons, which is unfortunately a project that's been in development for eight years. Now finally, the shovels are in the ground. Really, because of that, and because of that threshold of income, we really need to encourage market housing for those professionals and rentals, especially.
MAYOR WHITE: The great news is that there are some developers who are coming to town and recognizing this. And I think because of a lot of other factors that you're well aware of, and interest rates especially, and their effects on mortgage rates from the federal government, it's becoming more favorable and needed for rentals in town. So some developers are proposing rentals and we're looking at some. And a lot of the rental rates, one of the reason the rental rates are so high in Gibsons, is a lack of supply. So people can charge whatever they want for their little basement suite. So we need more supply for rentals in order to bring those rates down, and that's the best way to be able to house professionals.
Benefits of high density development
TONY: This was true a while ago when I looked at it, but I thought Gibsons was the second oldest demographic in BC. I think Parksville is the first and we're the second, or we may...
MAYOR WHITE: Sunshine Coast overall. Yes.
TONY: Speaking of that and having a more senior population. Ideally with development, do you find that a higher density development, is better for the town, potentially better for the environment than the large sprawling estates kind of thing? And is that part of the decision-making process that council makes when it approves or declines development?
MAYOR WHITE: Absolutely. Yes. And that's been recognized for a long time in our town, actually. Our last two official community plans, going back to early 2000s, have talked about needing more density for environmental sustainability purposes for housing needs. And you're right, you started off talking about workforce, which I find we often talk about that in relation to density at council, too. And we do also need to talk just as much about seniors needing to downsize. Because, especially, I see a lot of seniors who are really challenged by housing right now and needing better options.
Will Gibsons run out of Drinking water?
TONY: Assuming we build more infrastructure to be able to house people for rentals and more development and that kind of stuff, what is the status of Gibsons' water supply? Because there was a local state of emergency up in Sechelt, I believe, recently, drawing attention to the limitations as far as that goes. What is the water situation for Gibsons? If we continue to build new housing projects, is there going to be enough water to service the new residents?
MAYOR WHITE: Yes. Yes, definitely for the foreseeable future. And it might be partly because we're a smaller community, so being able to really focus on our water has hopefully been, I wouldn't say easier... a lot of credit goes to former councils and former mayors and staffs in Gibsons who put a lot of work into making sure we have sustainable water. We had an aquifer mapping study done a number of years ago to ensure that our official community plan and all the growth is based on knowing the amount of water that we have available in our aquifer. That was just updated last year and it reconfirmed that we still have enough water to supply sustainable water. It's not like we will run out. We can supply sustainable water for 10,000 people, which is the build out rate in our official community plan.
TONY: Our current population's about 4,700, is it?
MAYOR WHITE: Yes. Yes. So we're far from 10,000. Our growth rate here is about 1% a year, and it'll probably increase a bit. A lot of people in the community, understandably, are pointing out that Gospel Rock development could start. I don't see it starting anytime soon, by the way, but it did meet its approvals. I haven't heard anything from those developers recently. Another thing to consider is the real estate saturation rate, which you could probably speak to better than I could. It's not like developers can build 300 homes here and then all of a sudden those will sell even when it's really...
TONY: Absolutely yes.
MAYOR WHITE: There is a saturation.
TONY: We can only absorb so much new inventory.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, yes, yes. So overnight, we're not going to get to 10,000. This is looking at decades down the road. And in the meantime, we continue to monitor our water really well in Gibsons. In fact, during that state of emergency we were in such a good, strong place with our water. We were supplying water to the SCRD.
TONY: That's what I noticed. It's like the different municipalities on the coast have different challenges, but because we're all part of the Sunshine Coast, people assume that what's a limitation in one area is necessarily the same else-
MAYOR WHITE: And another story, another point that I've heard as a concern, that I want to address, from people, is what if we have to keep supplying water for the SCRD? Will that then drain our aquifer even lower? We wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't a sustainable practice. As we all know, water does come down and it eventually gets into the ocean. We are pumping water up from the aquifer as well. But there's some that's just going out to the ocean, especially in the Chapman system, but also here in Gibsons, even though it's aquifer water. So there is this kind of leeway of sustainable water that we have left over and can supply to...
TONY: To help out our neighbours.
MAYOR WHITE: ...the SCRD when we need.
Does population growth lead infrastructure?
TONY: Does infrastructure lead to growth or does growth lead to infrastructure? Is it realistic to halt development until we have infrastructure in place to accommodate, anticipate a population growth? Or do you have to build the accommodation and then upgrade the infrastructure? How is that normally planned in a council?
MAYOR WHITE: It's definitely you need the growth to build the infrastructure. That's how the finances are structured. When it comes to some really essential infrastructure for the entire town, I know we'll be looking soon at a sewage treatment plant upgrade that's been identified, that we've needed for a number of years. But our council's going to have to look seriously at it. That's going to cost a lot of money. We'll probably be needing to look at... Hopefully government grants would help with that, from senior levels of government. But perhaps a loan as well, local governments always need to take out loans for some major infrastructure projects. But other than that, when it comes to infrastructure that's needed for future development, those developers need to pay for that through development cost charges. And that's some-
TONY: The DCCs.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, the DCCs are the primary way of improving our infrastructure, then the only way we can get those is to have those developments coming forward.
Regulating Airbnbs in Gibsons, BC
TONY: So moving on to kind of a hot button topic, the elimination of short-term rentals in Gibsons. My interpretation of the residential guest accommodation policy is that it's meant to essentially eliminate short-term rentals in Gibsons over the next two to five years. Would that be an accurate assessment for you?
MAYOR WHITE: So there was a policy that was put forward by a consultant. I've inherited a lot of things. I've had to dig through that work that was done by the previous council. I watched a lot of those meetings, too. And it was frustrating watching those meetings because it's a complicated issue, I think, and counsellors found it very complicated, and we kind of come back and go, "What about this? What about that?" And that happened when they tried to pass their first bylaw. They actually went through... They had a much simpler bylaw that went through the public hearing and I think counsellors came up with new issues and concerns at the very end of the decision-making process, which is why I'm really focused so far on improving our decision-making process and really making sure our meetings are focused on making good decisions. Because that was a challenge I could see in the recent past. So that's another issue.
MAYOR WHITE: But getting straight to that, I think there was a lot of confusion about a very complex issue, a very complex policy that went forward. And as far as I can see, that policy was never really endorsed or adopted by the council. Bylaws were, and looking at the bylaws, there's nothing in there that says there will be an elimination. And even if a previous council were to say, "We plan on doing something in two to five years," I'm going to come in and say, "Well, sorry, you can't."
TONY: New administration.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes. You can't actually bind future councils to some decision you've made five or 10 years ago. So really the way we've approached it, unfortunately, we do need to move forward with this bylaw. We need to keep moving forward. And you see it in all governments, a new government can't exactly come in and just say, "Here's something that's already in motion..."
TONY: Turf it out.
MAYOR WHITE: "We're just going to turf it out." And then, also, there's an issue there, with this one in particular, with our community and our staff in saying, "The previous council's already been talking about this nonstop, and for three years, let's just keep doing it." We need to keep moving forward. So what our council's done is recognized that we need to keep this process going. But it's a two-year temporary use permit, is what all this RGA is based on. So we've set a date for all of them, all the temporary use permits, to complete December 31st.
TONY: Okay. 2024?
MAYOR WHITE: 2024, yes.
TONY: And I imagine that will give you time as well.
MAYOR WHITE: Exactly.
TONY: The applications that are on the books right now for rental accommodation, the change in rules as far as strata councils allowing non-rental units to now be rented out. Hopefully over that time, I imagine things will clean themselves up a little bit and there'll be a clearer idea of what's necessary. Because right now it seems, like you said, a quagmire of two different opposing opinions on the thing, but not necessarily having all the information on either side.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, and that's good policymaking, too. I've always been frustrated, too, in local government, to see councils and boards get hung up on thinking we've got to set one policy in stone that's going to work for 50 years or for eternity, which is not reasonable. Something like this for short term rentals that's very, very much changing due to the economy, changing to housing needs, you need to review things like this every few years. Especially something that's so sensitive to the economy and tourism. And other communities in BC that I've been following, the ones that have been really successful in maintaining tourism and focusing on needing short-term rentals for not only tourism, but maybe short-term workers, but also needing long-term rentals. And really seriously focusing... I think at Tofino is a great example.
TONY: I was going to ask if Tofino was one, yes.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, yes. They're reviewing and tweaking their short-term rental policy every two years. And it's not a bad thing. This is the reality. And they're responding to their community's needs in terms of tourism and housing, and that's what I think we're going to have to do in two years. And it's ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous to say, a year or two years ago, "We're just going to eliminate them all in four years." You actually need to keep a finger on the pulse of what's going on in the community and how the economy's going and how housing's going and respond to that.
Definition of a principal residence
TONY: I hear a lot of questions about short-term rental bylaws passed by the previous council. In this context of the bylaw, can you explain how the town defines a principle residence?
MAYOR WHITE: That one, I have to read off the bylaws itself.
MAYOR WHITE: The definition of a principal residence means a single dwelling unit where a person lives at least nine months in the calendar year and conducts their daily affairs, including paying bills, receiving mail. And the dwelling unit, I think that might be the important part you're looking for, it has a residential address related to billing, driver's licenses, all that, are connected to that principle address.
MAYOR WHITE: So I think maybe the concern that's out there, which is different from other short-term rental bylaws, maybe not all of them, but some of them in BC, is that the town, I think oddly, cuts everything up in terms of dwelling units. So a secondary suite in your home would be considered a separate dwelling unit. So if you were to go get a temporary use permit, it would only be for that secondary suite. And if you also wanted to maybe do a short term rental upstairs with a room in your own living space, you'd need a separate temporary use permit for that too.
MAYOR WHITE: So I think that's been a really challenging part of this bylaw and it's something that we're going to have to take a really serious look at when we review it next year. Yes, it's made it very, I think, unnecessarily complicated. And it's something that a lot of homeowners are just dealing with anyway. We are getting applications and we've approved 22 temporary use permits so far. And councils, I think, showing some support for having a balance of short term rentals in our community and needing them for tourism, needing them for the economy. By approving those 22. And we'll get more in and continue those as well.
Short-term rental enforcement
TONY: You've had 22 applications that have been approved. I guess the follow-up question to that is that there seems to be a lot more short term rentals operating, if you go on VRBO or Airbnb and that kind of stuff, that may not have been approved or even applied for a permit. What's the intention of the council with those operators?
MAYOR WHITE: Well the hope is that they're applying for temporary use permits as well. The way that staff is doing it, it would totally swamp us in terms of procedure to do one at a time. So another group is being collected together for council.
TONY: The number of applications are still building?
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, yes. For council to consider soon, I think within the next couple months there'll be another batch to consider. There's bylaw enforcement, which is something we passed at our December meeting, has been put off until the end of January. So there will be bylaw enforcement starting in February. And when bylaw enforcement tends to happen, especially for the first time, it isn't like our officers go around just handing out fines to people. It'll be a warning first just to let people know that they need to de-list their buildings and make sure they have a temporary use permit, make sure they have a business license, and we'll go from there.
MAYOR WHITE: I think that's going to be an interesting time for council because I think we'll be getting a lot of letters. We should be right now. I just received a really great letter from somebody yesterday explaining kind of a unique situation they're in where our bylaw's being interpreted in a certain way that's not allowing them to continue on with their short-term rental. And some of those things I'm hoping we can troubleshoot a bit and make them work. And I'm sure we'll be getting some more of those in front of our faces once the bylaw enforcement actually kicks in.
Garden suites as Airbnbs
TONY: I have another example for you. So if a Gibsons homeowner has a house with a separate garden suite, can the homeowner rent out the garden suite as a short-term vacation rental assuming that they apply for the right permits and that kind of thing?
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, and we've even approved one of those so far.
Residential Guest Accommodation bylaw review
TONY: There are two proposed multi-family complexes potentially happening in upper Gibsons. If one or both of these projects are approved, would that additional rental housing result in the council potentially revisiting its short-term rental policy?
MAYOR WHITE: Well we already have a schedule for revisiting the policy, so that'll be next year. We've had to follow this policy that was already in place and schedules were already put out. People had already put money into applying for their temporary use permits or renovating their homes. So the new council couldn't exactly come in and say, "Oh, sorry, everybody." And people are also, I've learned too... I've talked to a lot of short-term rental operators and learned that people are scheduling their whole lives based on if they can have their short-term rental and when it'll be. So getting a temporary use permit and a business license really helps people with security and being able to go, "Okay, we can go on holiday for this portion of the year."
MAYOR WHITE: "Because we have our permit and someone's not going to come in and shut it down," which was actually always a potential in the last few years because we weren't regulating them and they were reviewing them. So that's one big bonus of regulation, is because people can have security and know that they're going to be able to plan out their lives based on having their short-term rental or not.
MAYOR WHITE: Back to revisiting any additional rental housing, we have a schedule for revisiting it already. But with the additional rental housing, a big frustration we all have at council is... and all housing advocates do as well, is that we can be approving rental housing or planning affordable housing and we're still looking like three years out.
TONY: Nothing happens quick.
MAYOR WHITE: Two years, minimum. So if we end up approving some rentals in the next couple months, there's going to be no immediate impact, unfortunately, to Gibsons. And I think more likely we'd be looking at Venture Way, what kind of impact is that going to have, one that's just getting built. And we'll offer rentals on Venture Way, which is really exciting. And I think that's a really great project.
TONY: Great looking complex, already filling up with a lot of great commercial operators as well. So definitely a diamond in Gibsons, that one.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes. And that's going to be great for us when we review it in a year, we'll be able to say, "Okay, what kind of impact has this had having these new rentals in Gibsons?"
Attracting people to Gibsons, BC
TONY: You mentioned Tofino as one of the places that you've looked at that have done a good job finding that balance. I do remember Tofino, and I think it's actually still going, they have a campaign attracting tourists, attracting, potentially, people to move to that area. Do you have any plans or does council have any plans to try to support tourism that way in Gibsons?
MAYOR WHITE: Not as a town of Gibsons function. So I'll explain that Tofino is an even smaller town than Gibsons. We all have a hotel tax that helps to pay for Destination BC. And Destinations BC's wing on the Sunshine Coast is Sunshine Coast Tourism, and Tofino has one as well. So when we see those advertisements, they're actually being paid for and done by Destination BC. And I think council's role would be more to make sure we're supporting that tourism by ensuring we have accommodation here for one thing. And also through the messaging, I think.
MAYOR WHITE: I was involved in a group called Voice on the Coast, as you mentioned in the intro, about 10 years ago. And a big reason for that, the need for that group to come up and say, "We need more young families, working professionals here," was the local governments themselves were beginning to market the Sunshine Coast and just talk about their areas as a retirement community. Fortunately, I don't hear that so much anymore, despite what you talked about with the demographics. I don't actually hear anyone from the local government saying, "We're a retirement community. We're a retirement community," the way they used to.
TONY: I think the median age over the last 20 years has dropped substantially on the coast. I think we're around 50 now, so I think it's trending in the way that you're talking about.
Sea Cavalcade update
TONY: Continuing on the thought of stuff to do and young families and that kind of thing. Not that the retiree demographic didn't enjoy it, but what's going on with Sea Cavalcade?
MAYOR WHITE: I don't know anything that's going on about it and I'd love to...
TONY: But you'd be open for it to start up again.
MAYOR WHITE: Absolutely. Yes. Yes. And the town of Gibsons still has funding, the last couple years anyway, that it's allocated to other areas for summer activities. But really it needs to be pushed by the community. I think some people have raised the idea, maybe the town should put more funding into it and actually pay for an event coordinator, and that's definitely something we should look at and consider. There are-
TONY: Maybe a volunteer position for that, in that capacity.
MAYOR WHITE: It has been in the past. And then the volunteers do a lot of work, and...
TONY: Not a lot of appreciation.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, yes, exactly. I'm excited because when you talk about all these new families who have come here and new businesses opening up, I think there's so much potential there for other people to come and say, "We want to redefine Sea Cavalcade. We want to do a Sea Cavalcade for 2022." 2023, it would be now. But yes, 2022 would've been nice too. There's just so much potential for people to get involved and work together on it. And I've heard people kicking around the idea, and I do think the mayor and council do have a role in facilitating that and encouraging it. So it is something... We're doing our strategic planning and we're putting that out to the community on January 31st at the Gibsons public market very soon. So I hope that people from the community come forward and say-
TONY: Show some support.
MAYOR WHITE: "Let's kickstart Sea Cavalcade," for sure. Or some other summer event.
TONY: I know when I moved here about 20 years ago, and I knew nothing about the Sea Cavalcade before I moved, but that was the most amazing thing to see. The whole town, all different walks of life, all different types of businesses come together and celebrate, have this wonderful summer event. It's kind of like living in a Hallmark movie where they have this town all comes together and does it. You don't really think it exists anywhere, but it did exist here. So it'd be wonderful to bring that back.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, I agree.
Gibsons, BC in 2030
TONY: Beyond everything we've talked about, what are your aspirations for Gibsons, and where do you see Gibsons say in 2030?
MAYOR WHITE: To me, I've been talking about this a lot recently... I've been talking about it for years actually, is that the change that I see in Gibsons, especially as somebody who grew up on the Sunshine Coast, has been familiar with Gibsons all my life, is not so much what we see around us with the natural environment and the buildings, I think... I was even speaking to Jackson Davies the other day, from The Beachcombers, and he's coming from Richmond, he lives in Richmond. He's just like, "Gibsons hasn't changed at all compared to some of my surroundings."
TONY: Yes, compared to Richmond.
MAYOR WHITE: And he loves it for that, and we all do. I see it's more demographic changes that we're dealing with. And the big challenge I think we have is are we going to become another West Vancouver in the way that...
TONY: Like a bedroom community.
MAYOR WHITE: Yes, only some people can afford to live here. And it's going to be really challenging for us because at least in West Vancouver maybe you can have people renting somewhere else in the lower mainland and commuting from Richmond or from Burnaby or somewhere, to go work in West Vancouver as teachers or nurses. Whereas that's much harder to do in Gibsons.
TONY: It's a big ask, getting the 7:00 am ferry.
MAYOR WHITE: We're geographically isolated so we really need to work on, when we're looking ahead to 2030, making sure we have housing for everybody.
TONY: I want to thank you very much for coming on the podcast. I've been waiting a long time for you to be mayor, and I'm sure that you're going to continue to be mayor hopefully for many years into the future, and hopefully you can maybe come back, do this again sometime. And thank you very much.
MAYOR WHITE: Thanks, Tony. It was great conversation and I look forward to speaking in the future too.
CALL TONY TODAY
If you’re not already working with an agent, call me when you’re ready to buy or sell and I’ll guide you through the busy and competitive real estate market on BC’s BEAUTIFUL Sunshine Coast.
Tony Browton - TrueBlueRealty.ca
Personal Real Estate Corporation
RE/MAX City Realty (Gibsons)
Email: Click here to email Tony
Personal Real Estate Corporation
RE/MAX City Realty (Gibsons)
Email: Click here to email Tony
⚠️ DISCLAIMER: This blogpost is not intended to cause or induce breach of any existing agency agreement.