British Columbia

Growing city with growing pains was story of Kelowna in 2016

We look back on how the Kelowna area grew significantly in 2016 and how that brought with it some new challenges — and solutions

Okanagan city was part of Canada's fastest-growing metro area in 2015, and 2016 saw the fallout

Kelowna isn't just for retirees anymore — it's growing fast, and is starting to see its share of big-city problems. (gillicious/Flickr)

One of the year's bigger stories from Kelowna was how Kelowna, for lack of a better term, kinda got bigger.

Going into 2016, the Kelowna metro area was declared the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country by Statistics Canada, and it wasn't just retirees anymore: it was largely younger people with families who needed jobs.

And all that led to some growing pains in the city, along with some creative solutions.

Housing crunch

Many of the people moving to Kelowna came from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, who were seeking respite from out-of-control real estate prices and scarce rental housing.

Unfortunately, Kelowna — also known as B.C.'s Orchard City — started seeing the same kind of problems as the communities these people left.

In May, the rental vacancy rate was 0.7 percent in Kelowna, and one property manager said it was a combination of more people coming to the city, owners selling their homes and the rising popularity of short-term rentals.

Buying also became a challenge with the average price of a home rising 2.8 per cent.

City officials said the approval of 1,430 new housing units would eventually make a difference, but completion of those homes is still years away.

The housing situation got so bad that one advocate said bidding wars for rental spaces were breaking out and low-income families were at risk of homelessness.

The City of Kelowna is looking at increasing urban density by adopting a new infill housing plan (City of Kelowna)

Homelessness, joblessness growing

Homelessness was more than a risk for many people in Kelowna in 2016: it was their reality.

The growing problem of homelessness, especially downtown, led to tension. City staff received more than 20 complaints about large numbers of shopping carts left on sidewalks and began confiscating those deemed abandoned, which advocates said robbed them of their few possessions.

Homeless shelters were feeling the pressure, with one saying they were turning away seven to 12 people each night.

At the same time, the city made sleeping on the sidewalk at any time a fineable offence, which drew a protest at city hall.

For those with and without homes, unemployment was a major concern. Kelowna was called the second-worst place in Canada to find a job, according to the Bank of Montreal, and Kelowna RCMP said unemployment was at least in part responsible for spiking crime rates.

A bylaw officer loads a shopping cart into a van in March. Bylaw officers were on the streets of Kelowna three times in one week removing carts deemed abandoned. (Chris Walker/CBC)

What's next?

The city is looking for solutions to the challenges that come with growth.

Council looked into regulating short-term rentals like those through Airbnb in the summer. And city planning now has an eye toward density through initiatives like microsuites.

But it will mean changes for the city, and that has some residents upset. Some are concerned that the character of some neighbourhoods will change with the new infill housing plan.

There's also the question of the future of heritage buildings, some of which are already changing.

And as the fentanyl and overdose crises continue to claim lives throughout the province, Kelowna is taking action, opening overdose prevention sites, which is not sitting well with some people, including some businesses.

The Orchard City may well see the impacts of these changes in 2017 and beyond.

This new overdose prevention site near downtown Kelowna on Ellis St. will provide a space for drug users, along with clean needles, needle disposal and naloxone, the antidote to opiod overdoses. (Jaimie Kehler)