CANADIAN ROCKIES ANNUAL, VOL. 4
By Ryan Stuart
An affordability crisis threatens the vitality of mountain towns.
This is what zero per cent rental vacancy looks like: $4,000 a month for a small house. $800 for a shared room. Rental bidding wars. Living in a van or sleeping in McDonald’s because, even if you could find a place to live, you can’t afford rent and food. And the worst: the reply a woman received after posting an ad on Facebook searching for somewhere to rent for a week: “How badly do you need the place? Could I make you a deal?” a man wrote. “No charge for the week but you stay a night with me. Sorry im [sic] probably being an ass or asking to [sic] much.”
All these stories happened in the Bow Valley, between Banff and Canmore. But there are similar tales of desperation from just about every resort town in B.C. and Alberta. An affordable- housing crisis is strangling the west. A number of factors are combining to make it challenging, and sometimes impossible, for the people who work in these towns to also live there. Blame Airbnb or shortsighted politicians, greedy developers and the gig economy. Regardless, towns are scrambling to come up with solutions. The need is acute and widespread and it’s not just residents suffering. When locals can’t find a reasonable place to live, the vibrancy of these communities and the sustainability of the local economy is at risk, too.
When Sharon Oakley first moved to the town of Banff, 30 years ago, affordable housing was already an issue, and it’s only intensified. Today, the town’s situation offers a glimpse into how complicated the housing crisis is throughout the Rockies.
With so many factors at play, understanding how to fix it is really a challenge, says Oakley, the manager of housing sustainability for the town of Banff. “We don’t even know what zero per cent vacancy is. It’s possible we have negative vacancy, but no way to measure it.”
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Like its northern neighbour of Jasper, Banff is located entirely within its namesake park, and its growth is tightly managed and restricted. Plus, since 1981 there’s been a “need to reside” clause: with some exceptions, only people working in the park can live there. In theory that should decrease housing demand, but in reality the restricted supply has always been more powerful. One reason is that the need to reside clause doesn’t apply to ownership. Plenty of people own in Banff who don’t live there. This makes the situation worse, pushing up prices and reducing supply for locals looking to buy in.
For all those reasons, Banff was an early adopter of affordable housing. In the early 1990s, the Banff Housing Corporation (BHC) began offering shared-equity home ownership to those who meet Park’s Canada’s eligible resident requirements. (The town retains an equity stake of 11 to 35 per cent in the properties to reduce the amount homeowners need to borrow. In exchange the BHC retains control over resale.) At the same time, many businesses started supplying housing for their employees. These efforts kept things manageable for a while, but then in the early 2000s pressure started to build.
Strong oil prices fired up a real-estate boom in Calgary, the closest city to the Bow Valley. Steadily Canmore, the town 20 minutes east of Banff and just outside the park, became a bedroom community and a refuge for Calgary’s emerging remote worker movement. With improved internet access, more people could work out of the office. Contract work increased and the lifestyle migrant was born. If you could work from anywhere, you might as well live somewhere awesome, like a mountain town.
And then along came Airbnb.
→ Keep reading this piece in Volume 4 of the Canadian Rockies Annual.
→ Got housing woes? Share your housing stories with us at crowfootmedia.com/housing
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Full-time freelance writer Ryan Stuart, a former Rockies resident now living on Vancouver Island, still considers the Bow Valley home. He returns as often as he can to mountain bike, hike, climb and ski.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.
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