Meet mobile home dwellers facing eviction in Tofino, BC

Melissa Leonard finishes her waitress shift and listens to the familiar crash of the waves on her bike ride home, the sound carried by the open Pacific breeze. But his own home, an RV in a campground facing closure, reminds him that he may not be here for much longer.

The 28-year-old transplant from Montreal works in Tofino, British Columbia’s idyllic ocean playground framed by stretches of sand and lush rainforest. Now she feels that she is being expelled from paradise. “I don’t know how to really survive through this whole transition,” says Leonard. “It seems they just want the locals to leave.”

Leonard and his partner, who until recently ran a popular restaurant called SoBo (short for “sophisticated bohemian”), bought a caravan trailer and rented year-round space at Crab Apple Campground, a 1.7-acre site tucked away in a corner of Pacific Rim Highway.

The property is known for the housing employees who serve the area’s thriving tourism industry. But in April, the district rejected the camp’s permit application, which could leave its 50 residents high and dry when the current one expires in October. Year-round residential campsites do not exist in Tofino’s zoning statutes.

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The decision was controversial. The villagers argue that there is nothing wrong with their way of life and that it is perfectly suited to service workers in a town with limited housing: they demonstrated and distributed a petition that garnered more than 1,700 signatures.

But some permanent residents raised safety and security concerns, suggesting that the site encourages transient living and pointing to the vans and motor homes that proliferate on side streets and vacant lots throughout the city. Several Facebook comments call Crab Apple an “eyesore.”

Once a commercial fishing village, Tofino is now a tourist haven for surfers, hikers, and foodies. Its base population of 1,900 people increases enormously as the climate warms, with up to 750,000 people a year, according to provincial estimates. And the rise of tourism as an economic engine rapidly transformed the community’s housing needs. Travelers to Tofino slept in vans long before # vanlife (living on wheels, cheaply, while following job opportunities) became a trend. The local tourism board even uses a Tofino-branded Volkswagen bus as part of their promotions.

Leonard Crab Apple’s neighbor, Tina Alcorn, is one of the transprovincial migrants. Five years ago, he took the first flight he’d ever taken from his hometown of Halifax, dreaming of “expanding” his life. Eventually, she purchased a white 1998 Vanguard Fifth Wheel with turquoise decals and became the manager of Tofino’s Co-op grocery store. “I’m finally doing some traction in my career and now this mat is being removed,” she says. “It’s definitely a lot of panic.”

Like many commercial operators in the city, Alcorn has placed a “help wanted” sign at the cooperative, reflecting a dilemma that the Tofino district recognizes: Workers are said to leave because they cannot find housing. , squeeze local businesses. While rates at Crab Apple start at $ 400 a month, a one-bedroom apartment in Tofino rents for $ 1,300. Buying an apartment that size would cost roughly $ 785,000.

Crab Apple camp owner Mathieu Amin poses for a photo at the residential camp in Tofino on July 8, 2021. The Tofino community mascot is a VW van with a surfboard on the roof, he described. "They are using it for marketing, but they don't really want it." he said.  (Photograph by Melissa Renwick)

Crab Apple camp owner Mathieu Amin poses for a photo at the residential camp in Tofino on July 8, 2021. The Tofino community mascot is a VW van with a surfboard on the roof, he described. “They’re using it for marketing, but they don’t really want it,” he said. (Photograph by Melissa Renwick)

British Columbia communities are grappling with the same problem, in many cases siding with anti-RV residents. For the past year, Vancouver, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Nanaimo have asked RV permanent residents to leave. Squamish and Surrey recently passed statutes that prevent people from spending the night in vans or RVs.

But some places have tried to balance residents’ concerns with the need to house workers. Tofino’s neighboring municipality, Ucluelet, recently launched a pilot program that allows landowners or businesses to house RVs and quick-track permits for temporary worker camps. Leonard and his partner hope to move there.

Back in Tofino, the owner of Crab Apple finds the situation devastating. Mathieu Amin, 45, first rented the land for his small floral design business in 2008. Within months, a local in a caravan asked to rent a place there, and seeing a need, Amin agreed. “I had the space,” he says.

He operated illegally until he raised the funding to buy the land from Crab Apple five years ago. Immediately afterwards, he applied for his first three-year temporary use permit at the request of the district. By then, it housed more than 25 people.

Amin had received a number of extensions, but emotions raged at the April district council meeting when his latest renewal request came up. Under British Columbia Municipal Law, only two consecutive temporary use permits can be issued. And Dan Law, Mayor of Tofino, says the district’s new Official Community Plan prioritizes permanent housing. “Nobody in the room wants to evict people from their homes,” he says. “We had to be very careful that what we are doing is in everyone’s best long-term interest.”

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Amin is renewing his application on the recommendation of the council, but doubts it will be approved in October. It’s unclear where the trailer workers will go in the meantime.

Mandy Nordhan, owner of the Meares Vista Inn motel, recognizes the council’s need to balance concerns about affordability and safety, with so many people moving in and out of the community. But life in RVs, he says, “is the way out here for some people.”

Nordhan came to Tofino in 2012 after his hotel in Grand Forks, BC, caught fire. For months, she and her family lived in a trailer, saving money to renovate the motel. He has rented space on his property to campers for nearly a decade. One, who works at a local surf shop, has lived there for eight years.

Some of Nordhan’s guests complain that RVs are unsightly, but she doesn’t hear any of it. “They are the people who prepare your breakfast, they are the people who teach you to surf,” he replies. “The people will die if there is no one to work.”

This article appears in print in the September 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline “Decamping paradise”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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