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Banff housing crisis continues as rental market tightens

The Banff housing crisis is in the middle of a seismic shift as pandemic restrictions lift and tourism sees a V-shaped bounce back to pre-COVID times. 

Sharon Oakley, manager of housing stability with the Town of Banff, said during the pandemic people were less comfortable sharing close quarters. Instead of having several people sharing rooms, she believes people in town spread out more and began living in less dense settings — a healthy change.

But this happened faster than new housing units could ever be built to keep up. Asked for an educated guess, Oakley said she thinks the local vacancy rate could now be hovering between one and zero per cent.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm, right?” Oakley said. “I mean, we’ve addressed one issue, which we’re very happy about with the overcrowding situation … [but] we still have to address the shortage.”

A portion of the housing hunt in Banff and the Bow Valley happens by word of mouth and through social media. There are a couple of Facebook groups where people post both properties for rent and seek out a place to live. 

In these posts, most share tidbits of their situation — they’re staying in a local hostel, staff accommodations didn’t work out, they’re sleeping on a couch, and even offering cash rewards or their own time in volunteer hours as an incentive to help them find a place to live.

“We’re in a housing crisis,” said Oakley. “There’s no doubt.”

Ski season is well underway at Sunshine Village Ski Resort in Banff National Park. (Helen Pike/CBC)

At Sunshine Village Ski Resort, located 25 kilometres from Banff, Kendra Scurfield said staff are accepting longer commutes to work with a lack of nearby available housing.

The hill’s staff during the winter season swells to more than 800, and there’s only room for a fraction of those people at staff accommodations — the rest are settled through partnerships with the Town of Banff.

“We are seeing more and more team members look to Exshaw and/or Cochrane for housing requirements and our housing needs,” said Scurfield, communications manager for the resort.

‘Unfortunately we have to turn people away’ 

This past summer, the Banff YWCA opened Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place, a 33-unit net-zero affordable housing facility. At the time, 110 people applied for accommodation and 30 of the units were filled. 

The building offers one-year leases. Criteria for potential residents include women and people with accessibility requirements, families and extended families, and low-income earners.

The next round to fill the remaining three units is currently underway, and Michelle Rhode with the YWCA said the organization received 187 applications. 

On top of that, there’s now a waitlist for that building lasting at least until the summer of 2023. 

“The need for affordable housing in the community continues to grow and unfortunately we have to turn people away as we are regularly at capacity,” Rhode said.

“More affordable housing is needed across the Bow Valley to meet the demand.”

The YWCA in Banff also operates one of the only emergency shelters in the Bow Valley, which Rhode said has been near capacity every night. She said there’s a gap in transitional housing in the valley that would act as a step between shelter and long-term housing for those at risk of homelessness. 

“There is often nowhere for people in our community to go after they leave our emergency shelter spaces,” Rhode said.

The Town of Banff has a limited footprint where development can occur. (Helen Pike/CBC)

The Banff Housing Corporation has seen its waitlist climb 30 per cent over the last four years, Oakley said. 

This summer they just began tracking rental statistics through the Banff Housing Corporation, and once they have gathered around six months of figures, Oakley said they will have a better idea of the housing picture in the valley. 

Typically by this time of the year, the town also has access to statistics from the province, but those haven’t materialised. 

Right now the focus of that housing corporation is to build affordable rental units to fill the need in the community. Oakley said the town will soon have a new 33-unit build completed and open for tenants that will hopefully ease the tight market right now.

“We’re looking at our next build,” Oakley said.  “Looking to figure out, you know, what size that would be, how we can keep it affordable.”

Town urges employers to build more staff accommodation 

Unlike other communities, Banff has strict land constraints. The town has a fixed, four-square-kilometre footprint. Director of planning, Darren Enns, said there’s not much greenfield development opportunities left, which means most development in the area is redevelopment.

The town also has strict rules around who can live there, with the right-to-reside requirements imposed by Parks Canada. There is also a longstanding tradition and regulation that employers provide housing for their employees, according to Enns.

“I think sometimes when you have new entrants to the market in Banff, they have to learn that [tradition] or they have to be regulated to do that,” Enns said. “I think that’s an experience that we’re having right now.”

Those regulations mean that employers who intensify must build more housing for employees, and if they do not wish to take the initiative to build, they must pay the town cash in lieu of housing so the town can take on that responsibility. 

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