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Squamish to soon have a housing society

The society's mission is to increase the amount of affordable housing in town.
Squamish affordable housing Dec. 11
The goal of the society is to increase affordable housing in Squamish.

Squamish is on the cusp of having a housing society, a long-awaited event for a town that has been wrestling with rising housing costs and a near-zero vacancy rate.

The purpose of the Squamish Community Housing Society, as mandated in its constitution, is to increase the supply and access to affordable housing options. The goal is to provide a range of housing that will cost residents no more than 30% of their gross income.

According to its guide for board members, within its first two years, this association should hire and establish its organizational structure and identify a site and potential housing development.

On Dec. 7, District council voted 5-1 in favour of giving three readings to establish a constitution and a set of bylaws that will govern the organization. The motion also directed staff to incorporate and establish the Squamish Community Housing Society.

Coun. Chris Pettingill was the sole dissenting vote. Coun. Jenna Stoner was absent as a result of her maternity leave and did not vote.

"It is time for someone to be focused on housing every waking minute they are at work and that hasn't been possible under our current model with all the priorities that are sitting here at the District," Mayor Karen Elliott said at the time of the vote.

Later, in her year-end interview with The Squamish Chief, Elliott added that the society will not be a copy of the Whistler Housing Authority, but rather a made-in-Squamish solution.

She also said the project was delayed due to the pandemic because the not-for-profit societies the District was collaborating with were focused on helping those in need. COVID-19 created an increased demand for social services.

"Two years late, but we're here now," Elliott said.

This motion is expected to be adopted in the near future.

During the Dec. 7 meeting, there were questions about the new organization's transparency and the composition of the society's board.

Coun. John French wound up supporting the motion, calling it a "historic" event for Squamish, but he initially brought forth questions about why the society's board meetings would be closed to the public, for the most part.

There is no requirement for the society's board meetings to be open, meaning the public will generally not be allowed to observe, staff said. However, there will be a public annual general meeting and regular report to council.

"This wasn't my vision," said French. "I thought it would be a little more open and accessible. Just a little bit surprised at where we've landed on this front."

District general manager Gary Buxton said when consulting other societies about the matter, there were no recommendations to make board meetings open.

The board may meet in public if they wish, he added.

Coun. Doug Race said that in his experience, the directors of corporate entities don't make their meetings public. 

"This is really a society that's going to run a business, and even though there's a public nature and a public element to it, their day-to-day role is running a business, and that's typically not done in public at any level," Race said.

Buxton said the annual general meeting could be public and the society will make a presentation to council at a public meeting each year.

Coun. Eric Andersen said that having society board meetings closed would allow the organization to be nimble and capitalize quickly on opportunities that arise.

While other councillors decided they were comfortable with the level of openness for the board, it was one among several outstanding issues for Pettingill.

"I do lean towards directors' meetings being public by default. I've been on a number of boards where the boards have decided to transition that way and it has worked well going to closed, like council does, when it's necessary," he said.

"I think that, especially in the first few years, there is a lot of public money going towards this and this is being done very much for the public good rather than as a private corporation, and so I think that that level of public openness is important."

Pettingill also said that he was concerned about the composition of the board.

"I still have concerns about reserved seats for [the] mortgage and banking sector and development sectors. We know the housing crisis has largely been driven by the commodification of housing and the for-profit motivations of these sectors," he said.

"For me, the goals of the society and the purposes and the decisions that need to be made are inherently at odds with the for-profit motivations of these industries. And while I think that advice and understanding is important, I would prefer that not to be in the decision-maker seat as a requirement."

The society bylaws require at least one board director to be from the private development sector, which can include developers, real estate agents and contractors, among others.

It also requires two directors from the housing or legal sector, which can include mortgage brokers, financial professionals, housing planners and property managers, among others.

The board will also include one director each from the District of Squamish council; Howe Sound Women's Centre Society; Sea to Sky Community Services Society; Squamish Helping Hands Society; Squamish Senior Citizens Home Society; The Squamish Nation or the Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Housing Society; and one director who occupies an affordable housing unit within the District.

Directors will serve on the board for three-year terms, with a maximum of two terms, or six years.

These directors will be appointed by "voting members" of the society who are representatives from the District of Squamish; the Howe Sound Women's Centre Society; Sea to Sky Community Services Society; Squamish Helping Hands Society and the Squamish Senior Citizens Home Society.

Pettingill said that renters and owners of units from the society should have voting members as well.

"Initial members should maybe have outsized voting roles, but I think if you live here, if you're a renter, you should have some voting rights for this society," he said. "This is for the benefit for these people."

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