Finding a place to live in Kelowna sometimes feels like trying to find a priest at a KISS concert.
They’re probably there somewhere, but good luck finding one under all the makeup.
You’ll hear rumours about someone selling a three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse close to downtown for $395,000, but actually getting there in time to have a look — never mind put in an offer — can be painful.
It seems affordable housing is all anyone can talk about, in person and through social media.
When KelownaNow writes about affordable housing, crime, the economy … heck, almost anything, we are swamped with comments.
“I’ve lived in B.C. my whole life,” Cindy C. wrote on Facebook under a story about people leaving the province. “It's beautiful, but the lack of housing and jobs is a huge issue the government needs to really get on. For the first time in my life I’m truly struggling to stay afloat.”
Pick almost any story, and that’s a running theme. Kelowna’s great weather, hills and lakes makes us the envy across the country. We attract people who can afford the finer things, and those who come here on a whim, only to realize how pricey it can get.
But Kelowna isn’t the only great city in Canada. Places like Whistler or Canmore-Banff also grapple with similar issues.
Are they winning that war? Are they struggling, too? KelownaNow went to those cities — OK, not really, but we called people in the know there — to find out for ourselves. Here’s what we found.
What do they do in Whistler? If you think Kelowna has an affluent community, imagine boasting a guest list that has included three princes — Will and Harry, plus Saudi billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal — Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger, Channing Tatum and socialite Paris Hilton. Singer Seal spent $20,000 to propose to supermodel Heidi Klum inside a “pimped-out igloo” there.
Rock icon Gene Simmons owns a home on the mountain. Bill Gates is almost an afterthought, but he likes it, too… We’ll stop the name dropping, because we could do this all day.
When the Resort Municipality of Whistler created the housing authority in 1997, it set out to house 75 per cent of the community’s employees. Today, the Whistler Housing Authority can boast more than 80 per cent, general manager Marla Zucht said.
“It became fairly evident a few decades ago that housing prices had been disconnected from our local incomes,” she said.
The housing program is exclusive to local workers. You have to work at least 20 hours per week or own a licensed business. You apply when you get a job and then you’re added to the waiting list.
The WHA — operating on an arm’s-length relationship with the town — owns about 230 rental units and oversees price-restricted homes for sale. In the community of 10,000 people, WHA has an inventory of 6,000 beds (half in rentals, half you can own). Zucht said it helps create a sense of community, is better for the environment (people don’t drive as far) and creates an attachment for those working in the area.
In 2016, the WHA is building a three-storey building with 27 more units. Another 300 acres are available thanks to the legacy of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Zucht’s advice for communities that are considering a housing authority? You should have long-term vision, she said.
It’s important to place restrictions on the title of units, so not just one person benefits. “Looking long-term is important,” Zucht said. “Prices are likely only going to increase.”
Going west is supposed to mean wide-open spaces in the land of opportunity. It’s just not happening as much as Canmore Mayor John Borrowman would like to see.
“We’re losing people all of the time,” he said, “and we’re talking, typically, young people in their 30s and 40s who are settling down and starting a family.”
Life-long residents are pulling up stakes, too, because a condo or townhouse starts at about $550,000 and the average single-family home starts at about $800,000, Borrowman said.
While you’d expect life to be difficult for front-line service workers, the teachers, nurses and plumbers are also getting priced out of the market.
“To purchase land for housing is a million-plus an acre,” Borrowman said. “The only way it works for us is if we use land that’s owned outright by the town, and we have very limited land base.”
Towering mountain ranges and Banff National Park make sure of that.
Flooding that would make Noah wince made it worse. When the Bow River broke its banks in 2013, Canmore lost 30 acres tabbed for affordable housing projects. Wow, what do you do? “There’s a glimmer of hope,” the mayor said.
Canmore created its housing corporation in 2000 and — alongside private sector investment — has managed to add 160-200 units of “professionally affordable housing.” “Which is not really meeting the need by a long shot,” he said.
That’s why Borrowman said Canmore is banking on more private-sector stimulation and incentives. The town has saved about $7.5 million through housing reserves over the past 15 years and it now has 48 units under construction.
The needle has started to move. Larger developers are taking advantage of incentives, possibly thanks to sliding oil prices.
Borrowman’s advice? Get the community to realize the benefits.
Canmore council has approved two projects that could add between 30 and 40 units of mixed affordable housing in established neighbourhoods.
One group of neighbours has responded with court action while others are demanding more consultations and workshops.
“Not in my backyard” — NIMBY — is something Borrowman can’t understand.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “Projects that should have been in the ground and occupied two years ago are still working their way through the whole process.”
Borrowman said he can’t understand why anyone would use the “if they can’t afford to live here argument.” The town is also building 60 units in a seniors’ lodge, but the 30 staff that would work there can’t afford to buy a home.
“People are very short sighted in their NIMBYism.”
You might say Muskoka is the Golden Horseshoe’s Goldilocks. The resort town is two hours north of Toronto — just about right for a weekend away from the city.
It’s nestled between Georgian Bay and Algonquin National Park amid 1,600 lakes.
Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell are on Muskoka’s A-list team. Tourism is the main driver after auto parts and forestry tailed away, said the District of Muskoka’s Rick Williams.
And what a driver it is.
The town’s permanent population is 60,000 and swells to 90,000 in the summer, said Williams, the district’s community service commissioner. On weekends, you can expect to see more than 200,000 people when you factor in tourists.
Housing becomes an issue because rent is high and incomes are lower than the provincial average with most people working in seasonal industries.
To keep the city going, Muskoka has developed three programs.
Rent: For those who qualify, Muskoka will subsidize you by about $250 per month.
Build: Muskoka gives $50,000 to anyone who builds a unit and rents it 20 per cent below market value.
Benefit: A benefactor endowed $1.5 million to Muskoka to help young families with down payments on their first homes.
Apartments in Muskoka start about $200,000, so it’s a bit more affordable than Kelowna. Still, the need remains high for first-timers and seniors.
“We’ve changed the trend line,” Williams said.
Over the past six years, he estimates Muskoka has developed — directly or indirectly — 600 new spaces. That’s pretty good for a town of 60,000, he said.
His advice is similar to what’s happening in Canmore. Sometimes there’s challenges to zoning decisions, especially when you’re talking about waterfront property.
You need to be willing to think outside the box.
“We’ve been fairly creative on the housing response,” he said. “And the numbers are starting to look way better.”