Calgary

Banff may be a mountain paradise — but housing crisis more 'dire' than ever

Many people dream of living in the Rocky Mountain mecca of Banff — but paradise comes at a cost: the vacancy rate has flatlined at zero per cent for several years and the town's mayor warns the situation is now "critical."

Mayor warns situation more 'critical' than ever as Banffites struggle to find homes to rent or own

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      Finding affordable housing can be difficult in many parts of Alberta. But nowhere is it more challenging than in the Bow Valley, where the vacancy rate sits at zero per cent. In the first part of a week-long series, CBC Calgary's Evelyne Asselin takes a look at the situation in Banff.

      Many people dream of living in the Rocky Mountain mecca of Banff — but paradise comes at a cost: the vacancy rate has stalled out at zero per cent for several years and the town's mayor warns the situation is now "quite critical."

      The resort town has long seen a steady flow of young seasonal workers who fill up staff accommodation and apartments, sleeping on bunk beds for a few months until moving on. But the nature of Banff's residents has changed. And longer-term residents are finding it harder than ever to secure accommodations.

      "It's a complete shock!" said Jen Mizuik, who discovered how dire the housing crunch was after accepting a management position at the Banff Centre, a post-secondary art institution.

      "I'm a professional, good job, stable. I never thought I would be looking at one-bedroom basement suites for my family!

      Jen Mizuik, her husband, her young daughter and her dog need to find a new place to live in Banff very soon. But they're finding it impossible: some places don't want pets and others don't want kids. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      About 9,300 people live in Banff, a jump of 13 per cent from 2011. A 2013 report by Housing Strategies Inc. found the town needs between 450 and 700 new dwellings to meet its needs for sustainable housing by 2022. Yet unlike most other communities that can simply expand their borders to make room, Banff must find fit everyone inside boundaries set by Parks Canada.

      The Banff Centre offered temporary staff accommodation to Mizuik, her husband, their daughter and their dog. They've shared the two-bedroom townhouse for 1½ years, one bedroom serving as an office for her husband.

      "I'm sharing a bedroom with my dog and my child and my husband, and it's quite tight, it's not ideal," said Mizuik.

      And she's losing this less-than-ideal space. Her lease was to finish in March, although she's been given an extension until she can find a suitable place — something that seems well nigh impossible.

      "We're having a really hard time. We've put offers on a few places and it's either no pets or they prefer a [childless] couple," said Mizuik.

      Banff mayor: 'Our situation has become dire'

      Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen says town council wants to build a hundred new units by 2018 – with the goal of increasing the vacancy rate to one per cent or higher. The vacancy rate has flatlined at zero since 2013. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      She's not the only one struggling.  On websites like Kijiji, there are far more ads from people looking for places than offers and social media pages like the Bow Valley Home Finder are filled with stories of people looking desperately for a roof.

      "I would say that our situation has become dire," said Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen. "We've always had housing challenges in Banff but in most recent years, we have noted that it has become quite critical."

      Banff used to have a constant flow of people who came in to work then left at end of season, leaving room for newcomers. But that has changed over the years, according to the mayor.

      "We now find that our employees are coming from further away, from other parts of the world, and not only are they staying for a long period of time, like a year or two — some are … looking for permanent residency and are looking to bring their family with them."

      Banffite bounces through 7 homes in 4 years

      Australian Daniel King moved to Banff four years ago and has lived in seven different homes since. It's a common story for area residents. 1:02

      Australian Daniel King is a good example. He moved to Banff to experience the mountains for a summer and never left.

      "I have lived in seven places since I moved here four years ago," he said, a common experience for Banffites trying to stay.

      King first shared a small room with a stranger. Then he had his own even smaller room, but had to leave when the owner sold the place. He shared a tiny but cheap room with a girlfriend, in a house where nine people used a "disgusting" communal kitchen. He moved on to another smaller place. And so on.

      "That's just what you have to deal with in this area," he said. "People are selling houses or the housing situation isn't that good, like it's dirty, it's crowded and it's messy — so you just want to find a better place that you can afford."

      Town plans to build 100 new units by 2018

      Banff's town council wants to build a hundred new units by 2018 — with the goal of increasing the vacancy rate to one per cent or higher. The vacancy rate has flatlined at zero since 2013.

      An arms-length non-profit organization, Banff Housing Corp., provides subsidized options to help Banff residents buy and, in the future, rent.

      BHC bought two lots in 2013 for potential housing development and the town is looking into buying another 14 lots.

      The word on the street is that projects could be announced within weeks.

      "I think building is our number one priority at this point and getting some units on the ground," said the mayor, Sorensen.

      "Currently we have a number of individuals living in large family homes or in duplexes or something that is more suitable for a family. If we can provide smaller units for rent, then ideally those homes will become available for families."

      They're also hoping private developers will build another 100 rental units.

      This three-storey building being constructed by Birchwood Properties on Banff Avenue will have 38 new rental units. Once these and other new rental apartments are complete, the town hopes younger workers will move into them and vacate houses that could be used by families. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      162 names on the BHC housing list

      So measures are being taken but they won't come fast enough to help people like Mizuik and her family.

      They've looked into buying but can't find anything affordable. They're on a wait list with the Banff Housing Corp., but the agency currently only has two to three houses per year to sell, on average.

      There are currently 162 names on the general waiting list with only one family-suitable house for sale right now — one of the largest units currently in the corporation's portfolio, priced at $745,000.

      Usually, BHC subsidizes about 25 per cent of a price for a qualified purchaser. With BHC's subsidy, the maximum price to the buyer would be $619,025 — although the corporation points out that prospective purchasers can bid lower than asking.

      The average listed price of a BHC home in 2015 was $597,388.

      The BHC says where someone is positioned on the BHC list isn't as important as where one sits on the list for a particular home. In the past year, people at both the top and the bottom of the overall list have purchased a home, it says.

      "I'll give it a little bit longer. I have another four to six months until my lease ends," said Mizuik. "And if nothing comes up at the end of that, it might come to, is it worth it?"

      Daniel King has already answered that question.

      "I want to stay because I love this area. The mountains are a calling and who are we to deny that to ourselves," King said.

      "If you're passionate enough, motivated enough, you can figure it out. For those that want the easier route, there are opportunities elsewhere."

      Unlike cities like Calgary, Banff cannot expand to accommodate its population. It's locked inside the boundaries established by Parks Canada. The only solution is densification. This single family home is being converted to a duplex. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      Clarifications

      • An earlier version of this story said Jen Mizuik was sitting at No. 151 on the BHC waiting list, giving the impression she had to wait for 150 others before she had a chance to get subsidized accommodation. In fact, what matters is the position on the waiting list for a specific place, not on the general list. In the past, people at the top and bottom of the overall list have purchased homes, according to the Town of Banff. Also, it was incorrectly stated that the current house listed — 8 Sulphur Court — was priced at $674,000. The maximum listed price is $745,000 with a price to the buyer of $619,025 after the BHC subsidy.
        Nov 16, 2015 7:00 PM MT

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