After five years at the helm of the Cortes Community Housing Society, Sandra Wood has stepped down. She continues to be involved with the society as a grant writer, a service which she provided Cortes Island with for more than a decade.

“The exciting news is we have a wonderful replacement who’s going to be stepping in to take over the leadership of the Housing Society and that person is Sadhu Johnston (pictured above). I couldn’t have found a better qualified person than Sadhu on Cortes Island. I’d really like Sadhu to speak to some of his past experience and credentials,” she said.

“He has a long history working with BC Housing in the city of Vancouver to bring affordable housing to the table, and because of that, he’s got contacts. He has a lot of financial savvy and creative ideas. He also has a lot more experience in policy and politics than I have. So I think he’s the right man for the time that we’re in now. I also believe that beyond building the next 24 townhomes in Rainbow Ridge, there’s a legacy of another 45 acres, the remainder of Rainbow Ridge. This is a fantastic opportunity for Sadhu to look at other creative housing models, and other solutions for this community that I haven’t had time to look at.”

Sadhu Johnston: “Thanks Sandra, those were very nice things to say about me. The first thing I would say is how grateful we all should be to Sandra for her Incredible commitment and the accomplishments that she’s achieved supporting this work on Cortes. It’s really amazing that we have 50 acres downtown and a strong organization. It’s just a real testament to your leadership and your can-do attitude. So, very excited to be picking up and taking the reins from Sandra, and really appreciate the opportunity to be able to focus on housing in my own community.”

“For me, Cortes is home and it will be for the rest of my life. Hopefully my kids will be able to live here in the future. I feel like the Cortes that many of us love is at risk. That diversity of community and the range of people that call Cortes home is threatened by the challenges that we’re facing for supporting housing and people’s various housing needs on this island. So I’m really grateful to be able to pick up where Sandra is leaving off and work on housing here on Cortes and to hopefully get Rainbow Ridge phase 1 fully funded and built.”

“Sandra has agreed to stay on in a fundraising support capacity. So we’ll be working together throughout November on getting the BC Housing grant and hopefully on other fundraising endeavours in the months and years to come. She’s not leaving or sailing off into the sunset.”

Sandra Wood: “For me, the fun has always been in the fundraising and the grant writing. I feel like I’m completing that in November, and I’m ready to hand it off to you, hopefully to start the construction next year in 2024.”

Sadhu Johnston provided a glimpse into his previous experiences as Chief Environmental Officer of Chicago (2005-2009), Deputy City Manager (2009-16) and then City Manager of Vancouver (2016-21).

“I was involved in housing in Vancouver. Actually, even in Chicago I was involved in housing endeavours: mostly efforts to make the existing building stock and new buildings more energy efficient, and to address the climate impact to those new buildings. I’ve been in and around this space for most of my career. It wasn’t until I was in Vancouver that I really got involved in affordable housing and working with staff who have real expertise on housing, which I don’t have, but engaging with those staff on various housing policies and programs, including leveraging city owned land to put more housing on.”

“I’ve been pretty deeply involved in various housing issues since I got into government in Vancouver and I see that we can really address a lot of the challenges that we’re facing here on Cortes, not just by creating housing like we’re working on doing at Rainbow Ridge and have done for the seniors, but looking at policy and other programs. There’s just a wide array of ways that we can support housing on Cortes that I’m really interested in exploring.”

“I’m thrilled to be able to work in my own community. Much of my work since leaving government is elsewhere. I’ve served on lots of boards on Cortes as my way to contribute here, but the idea that I could focus halftime on housing in a community that I love is really thrilling to me and that I’d be able to contribute some of the experience from elsewhere to support the housing needs on Cortes is, is something I’m really looking forward to.”

Sandra Wood gave an overview of how the Cortes Housing Society came into being and what it has accomplished up until this point.

“I’ve been doing fundraising in the community for more than 10 years, and I’ve helped as many societies and associations as I could to raise money. Along the way, I joined a group who wanted to create the Cortes Island Foundation.”

“In those very early days, about five years ago, we all agreed that affordable housing was the biggest issue. So a group of us hived off and decided to create this housing committee to try and do a special fundraising drive to raise at least a million dollars because we knew that there was a piece of property in downtown Mansons Landing that had been listed for sale-by-owner. There was this opportunity to secure that for the community and the future.”

“That was really the infancy of both the Cortes Island Foundation, and the Housing Committee which is now the Housing Society. During the past five years, a lot has happened. We raised over $1.7 million and that helped us to buy the 51 acre parcel now known as Rainbow Ridge. It also enabled us to expand the Cortes Island Seniors Village with four more cottages, so there are now 10 cottages for seniors to stay in our community. I’ve been very busy with a group of consultants, architects, engineers, creating a plan for 24 townhomes that will be built on Rainbow Ridge.”

“So it’s been a really busy five years, and I feel like we’re at the brink now. This is our third attempt at getting funding from BC Housing. I think it’s our time. I believe that we are more ‘shovel ready’ now than we’ve ever been in the past.”

“A couple of things that we’ve just completed recently was a review by BC Housing of the completed design by Iredale, the architect that we hired for this project. BC Housing also reviewed all of the infrastructure plans for the site: the stormwater system, road, waterworks, this wastewater system and things like that.”

”So we’ve had a comprehensive review by BC Housing of the existing design package and that was before they announced the new grant. So we were able to incorporate those changes into our package that we will be submitting for the grant. This summer, we drilled a well and we hit water, lots of it. Previously we had a hydrogeologist report confirming that there was water down there, but now we’ve actually proved that we have 25 gallons per minute, which is more than enough to support 24 households.”

“We also had been waiting for two years to get the water license approved by the province of British Columbia. There has been an incredible backlog since the province initiated this new licensing procedure and without that license you cannot actually draw water for your project. So we have that now approved, which is huge.”

“We’ve also made progress with the Ministry of Transportation regarding our subdivision approval, and that’s to carve off six acres from the 51 acres for this first phase of construction.”

“Those are the main points that have changed over the last 2 years, since we previously applied to BC housing.”

Sadhu Johnston: “I’ve heard people on the island wondering why we don’t already have housing built, why it’s taken so long to get through the BC Housing process and wondering whether it’s worth it.”

“When BC Housing supports a project like this, they provide construction loans, they provide technical expertise and resources with their own staff who do this kind of housing across the province, but then they also provide long term subsidies for the project so that the people that rent there can pay below market rates on their rent. When you look at that over the life of this project, that overall package of benefits is over 35 million.”

“The challenge to get through and make sure we’re really ready for BC Housing is worth it when you get approved because that will enable people to rent really nice new units at half to a third of what the market would demand.”

“There’s a mix of 3 different levels of subsidy, the really deep subsidy, a rent that’s geared to your income, and then a slightly below market rate. The different units would be in those different classes. I just really want to emphasize the importance that it could mean for this community to have that level of subsidy over 30 to 35 years.”

CC: What will Cortes Community Housing do after Rainbow Ridge is completed?

Sandra Wood: “The Housing Society had always hoped that we could have success in the future village of Rainbow Ridge in downtown Manson’s Landing and hopefully we can replicate that concept of creating these little pocket neighbourhoods in other parts of the island, like Squirrel Cove or Whaletown. That’s part of the long term vision as well for the housing society because there are people who have been born and raised in Whaletown who want to continue living there, whether they’re downsizing or renting. They don’t want to move to Mansons. We’ve heard that and that’s certainly one of our longer term visions as land is either donated to us or land becomes available in those communities that perhaps we or our supporters are able to secure and hold as a potential land bank for the future.”

Sadhu Johnston said he is not waiting until after the Rainbow Ridge project is completed , the first thing he is looking into is other ways the Cortes Housing can serve the community.

“I’d like to see us develop a housing strategy for Cortes, that would be developed in collaboration with individuals and organizations across the island. Where would we establish housing? What are the needs? How much housing? What type of housing is needed? What are the ways that we’re going to support people as they may want to sell their property, but stay on the island as they age? Looking at ways that young buyers can get in with affordable home ownership programs, tiny home villages, looking at programs for seniors to have younger people living with them.”

“There’s new models with land banks. There’s just a lot of really innovative things happening and I would see the housing society playing a role in developing a strategy and then implementing that strategy and working with the regional district and philanthropists and other partners to provide a variety of housing solutions for Cortes.”

“It’s a little bit like being in a frog in a pot of water. It gets hotter and hotter and hotter. We really need to jump on it before we’re in boiling water. We aren’t yet and I believe that the next 3 to 5 years are critical in ensuring that Cortes remains a diverse community that supports just a variety of people to be able to live here. That’s becoming harder and harder.”

“We need to be looking at the summer housing challenges for workers that come to work at the Gorge and work at Hollyhock and work at the Co-op. What is a summer housing solution? Looking where people can be living in units that don’t take housing away from people that would need to be here year round. So looking really at kind of a temporary worker housing solution, and maybe those can be bunkies. They don’t need to have heat and the variety of other requirements that you would have for year round housing.”

“I’d like to engage in some planning with the community, develop a housing strategy, engage with the regional district and work on a suite of solutions across the community, including addressing some of the land use challenges on Cortes.”

“One of the things that I’d like to do would be to learn from other rural island communities that are addressing this challenge. I’d like to bring together housing leaders in other communities that are doing unique things and maybe even bring them to Cortes. We could have some forums where we can bring Cortes residents together with folks from elsewhere that are working on housing, and really learn from how other places that may be farther down the road, and in addressing a variety of housing challenges and pioneering variety of housing solutions that we could learn from. That’s another area that we might want to explore on Cortes.”

Sandra Wood: “I really wanted to say thank you to the Cortes community which has continued to donate money and time as volunteers, showing up to community events and giving us their feedback to our plans. People who’ve been donating property to us and helping us to create more funding to keep the work moving forward. It’s just been a huge joyous outpouring of support and I really want to say thank you to the Cortes community. I feel like it’s such important work, and people really understand how much housing means to everybody because we all want to have a home. We want our children to be able to live here with our grandchildren. I think it’s really touched people in their hearts. I just wanted to say what a joy it’s been helping to create the Cortes Housing Society.”

Sadhu Johnston: “I’d like to build off of that just to emphasize how lucky we are as a community to have that land. In Vancouver, I worked with so many housing societies, non-profit organizations, that were trying to build housing and had no land.”

“That’s a huge barrier. Because of the incredible work of Sandra and many, many, many volunteers and donors, we have this incredible asset that we get to benefit from for generations to come that we can build housing on and utilize. It really sets us apart and is a huge asset to work with, that we’re going to do in the years ahead to have that amount of land.”

© Cortes Currents

‘On The Brink’ of Success; The Cortes Housing Society Changes Leadership