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Build housing on Saanich Peninsula to ease looming staff shortage: chamber

Saanich Peninsula Chamber calls for 10,000 more units across Peninsula by 2030, other changes
The Peninsula Chamber of Commerce will be lobbying for more housing as part of a renewed emphasis on advocacy. Executive director Al Smith said improving the housing stock will help address the staffing shortage facing the region. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

It’s back to the roots for the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

Executive director Al Smith said the organization wants to return to being of an advocate on issues that impact its members.

In a far-ranging interview with Black Press, Smith said the chamber had to re-invent itself after the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This period of reflection, with help of a strategic advisory group, included studying the question of what the chamber needs to do in the next five to 10 years.

While business had been tough during the past three years, the next five-years-plus also shape up to be difficult but for different reasons, he said, adding that the chamber consulted a wide range of sources including provincial ministries, business associations and businesses inside and outside of its own membership to determine challenges ahead.

“If we have limited staff and limited budget, our first priority is advocating locally on behalf of businesses for things that support the business environment,” he said. “And then we will build on top that.”

This process will happen under the triad of advocacy, awareness and community in that order.

“We have to advocate for the things that businesses need, we have to build awareness of businesses and what they are doing locally for residents and municipalities and we need to build community in businesses.”

Looking at specific issues, the region faces a shortage of staff that will only get worse with time, he said. Drawing on figures from Statistics Canada, Smith has calculated that the available workforce on the Saanich Peninsula will shrink from 22,485 people aged 15 to 64 to 17,937 by 2033 — a loss of 20 per cent. These calculations do not consider migration from within and without the rest of Canada.

This staffing shortage affects local businesses of every size and sector, going far beyond shortages on the front end of retail or food service and reaching deep into higher end positions.

Smith identifies three reasons for this shortage: local demographics with COVID-19 having pushed the top end of the employment pyramid into retirement; the high cost of living in the region with housing one of the main factors (Smith has calculated that the median household on the Peninsula faces the prospect of paying 70 per cent of its gross income on mortgage payments along); and transportation — or as Smith said — the lack thereof.

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As he showed later, 70 per cent of the workforce on the Saanich Peninsula travel 40 kilometres round-trip per day from outside the region to get to their jobs in Sidney, North Saanich and Central Saanich. But staff are increasingly less willing to travel long distances, he said.

This reliance on commuters for workers also has ecological consequences. Smith’s breakdown shows commuters to the Saanich Peninsula produced per year 73,000 tons of CO2 with almost 90 per cent of those emissions coming from non-electric private automobiles.

Alternatives to the private automobile depend on density and arguments against density ultimately undermine efforts to fight climate change, he added.

So how does the chamber plan to address this staffing shortage? By lobbying for more housing.

“If the only people who can afford to buy here, are retired people who come with equity and buy up the housing workers cannot afford, it compounds cost-of-living … and if we are not building housing, if we are not building density, we are undermining transportation, cost-of-living and the workforce,” he said.

The chamber has published three demands on its website: redefine housing demand calculations that currently rest on historical population growth rates but not on current demand for housing units; urgent zoning for 10,000 new units across all three municipalities by 2030; and phasing out R1 single-family zoning on the Saanich Peninsula.

“We know that this is a tough topic and that it could take years for our local governments to understand that you can protect property values without the use of exclusionary R1 (single family dwelling) zoning,” it reads. “We need to advocate for the phasing out of R1 zoning hoping that it will, at the very least, be reduced in the short term and eliminated in the long term.”

Smith acknowledged that these changes won’t happen overnight, but added that they won’t be the last ones, as the chamber will roll out a series of issues. It will also increasingly rely on real-time polling of its membership as well as non-members to feel the pulse of business community and present local decision-makers with more current information, he said.

The chamber has also restructured its membership system to make it more accessible through a system of tiers ranging from $350 for a basic membership to $5,000 for the advocate membership with rewards increasing along the way. Within this context, the chamber announced that Butchart Garden has joined at the champion level of $1,750.

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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