Wednesday, May 29, 2024
May 29, 2024

ADUs: a Salt Spring tradition that should be revived


Salt Spring Island needs more effective ways to learn about and discuss important, complex and controversial issues. At Salt Spring Solutions, our goal is to bring more people power into our island’s decision-making processes. We hope to see Salt Spring evolve into a community that can work effectively together on solving complex issues and make the sometimes-difficult decisions on how to improve lives and protect our island ecology.

Take housing, for instance. We’re interested in solutions to our housing crisis that minimize environmental impacts, maximize forest and farmland preservation, make efficient use of existing infrastructure and resources, and improve the diversity, availability and affordability of long-term homes for locals.

Although Salt Spring is widely known as an idyllic place to spend a weekend in a cozy cabin, a yurt in the forest, or a tiny home on an agricultural property, did you know that these, and other types of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), are mostly prohibited here as long-term rentals?

ADUs, sometimes known as granny flats, secondary suites and small cottages, were a small but integral part of the housing stock up until the 1970s on Salt Spring Island.  Since the days of early homesteads and family farms, most properties had one or more small dwellings in addition to a larger primary house. Islanders have lived in cabins, above barns and garages and in secondary suites for generations. These accessory dwellings housed adult children or extended family members, farm workers or other employees, or were leased for rental income.

According to the Salt Spring Island Housing Needs Report (CRD, 2020), secondary suites constituted roughly one in 13 homes permitted before the 1980s. Since 2000, virtually no legal secondary suites have been constructed. The rise of 1970s zoning practices largely prohibited the construction of suites in favour of detached homes. This has resulted in the homogeneous and imbalanced housing stock that we have today that is not serving our community’s needs.

ADUs are a unique housing solution because they are funded, built and managed by individual property owners, usually home-owners who reside on the same property. The property owner can generate income to help pay their mortgage or house extended family or community members, or age in place on their property by moving into the smaller dwelling and renting out the larger house, or house an on-site caregiver in the ADU. ADUs provide affordable housing in a unique way, and also:

• maintain the existing character of the neighbourhood while gently increasing density, and reduce sprawl by making use of already developed residential land, infrastructure, and services;

• require fewer resources to build and maintain than larger detached homes, and are easier to finance and less expensive to build than multi-unit housing like townhomes and apartments;

• respond to the overall trend toward decreasing household size and increasing demand for small dwellings;

• support multi-generational and communal living, informal companionship, and child-care, increased safety and shared maintenance.

Several attempts to reprioritize ADUs for long-term rentals have been made in the past 20 years. Many policies in our most recent Official Community Plan (2008) support the need for a range of housing types, including ADUs. Studies indicate that, without any regulation or subsidy, about one in five ADUs are occupied for rents that are zero or far below market rates. That’s because the great majority of these units are being built for friends and family, such as grandparents or adult children. Homeowners who build ADUs are often not doing it as a for-profit real estate investment, but rather are choosing to prioritize something other than financial return. 

Some people are concerned that legalizing ADUs will contribute to overpopulation, stress freshwater resources, negatively impact the natural environment and be misused as short-term vacation rentals. While these are legitimate questions to raise, the experience of other small communities where ADUs are legalized for long-term housing demonstrates that those hesitancies can be addressed.


Given the high cost of construction, legalizing ADUs for long-term occupancy is more about creating a path for legalizing existing ADUs and allowing modest increases in specific areas, especially for multi-generational living, rather than creating a lot of new housing stock all over the island. It is an important homeowner–initiated and –funded solution.

Water and Wastewater

The permit process requires that potable water and wastewater requirements are addressed prior to getting a building permit for an ADU. Construction of ADUs is only allowed if there is enough potable water and proper wastewater treatment. In addition to this safeguard, data gathered by Salt Spring Island Watershed Protection Alliance shows that current standards require far more water to be available on each residential property than is typically used.

Sensitive Ecosystems

The same setbacks, development permit area guidelines, and provincial and federal regulations that safeguard ecologically sensitive areas (wetlands, shorelines and community well capture areas) from the potential impacts of building detached houses also apply to ADUs.

Short-Term Rentals

Currently, short-term occupancy in ADUs is widely allowed for seasonal cottages and tourist accommodations, while long-term occupancy is not. This needs to be flipped to allow more legal long-term rental homes for locals. Zoning and business licensing are the existing tools used in other communities that could equitably regulate short-term rentals without preventing long-term occupancy.

At Salt Spring Solutions we envision being part of a community that works across areas of interest and issue-based divisions to identify key problems that require attention, to open up closed or obscure decision-making processes and convene respectful fact-based dialogue to find community-led solutions to our big hairy problems.

What do you think about using ADUs as one part of the solution to solve our community’s housing crisis? To join the conversation and learn more visit

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