BANFF – Lauren and Ben Hughes never dreamed it would be possible to own their own home in Canada’s premier tourist town.
But the couple was lucky enough to get drawn in a lottery for a unit in the Banff Housing Corporation’s affordable housing development on the 300 block of Banff Avenue, referred to as The Aster.
“This is our first home purchase. It feels very surreal considering all that we’ve been through so far with the pandemic,” said Lauren, who moved to Banff from Australia with her husband Ben in 2019 and since secured permanent residency for Canada.
“Unless we went home in March 2020, there was really no way to get back… we stayed through the lockdown and began saving once the park opened again in June 2020 when we went back to full-time jobs.”
Lauren said the process to get a home in The Aster was nerve-racking, but they landed on their second choice in the 33 available apartments for sale.
“Once we decided to commit to Banff, we felt if it was meant to be ours that it would work out,” said Lauren who works for Rocks and Gems Canada, while Ben works for Canada Goose.
The units in The Aster range in price to the buyer from $357,000 for an 858 square foot one-bedroom unit on the lower end to $556,818 for a 1,226 square foot three-bedroom apartment on the higher end.
The $13.2 million housing project is being developed under a price-restricted model, which means the BHC owns a percentage of the home while the homeowners pay for and own the rest.
The dwellings are sold at the bare cost of construction with no markup, which makes them much below market value.
That made it financially feasible for Lauren and Ben, who said it was great to have the opportunity to buy, otherwise it would have been completely out of the question to purchase and remain in Banff.
“It’s life changing,” said Lauren, noting that trying to save a 20 per cent deposit seemed insurmountable.
“As a young couple in the Bow Valley, it’s totally the only way we would have been able to stay here, unless of course we kept renting,” she added.
“It’s really almost unachievable to buy because of the pricing and wages, so we’re so grateful this came along and that the Town of Banff is aware of the crisis that it is and makes these options for people.”
So far, the Banff Housing Corporation has sold 28 of the 33 units as part of a lottery process. The units sold within two days.
Individuals with need-to-reside had to apply to be entered into a lottery for purchase. The lottery placed applicants in numerical order for purchasing a dwelling.
Sharon Oakley, housing sustainability manager for the Town of Banff, said there has been huge interest in the below market development project from the get-go.
She said 400 people registered initial interest, which filtered down to 63 qualified applications for the 33 units.
“COVID-19 has turned our community upside down and so we didn’t know how this was going to play out. Literally, we were starting the design piece of this before COVID hit in 2020,” said Oakley.
“But it has been so successful. I am so thrilled with it and am very excited for the people who have bought in here.”
The BHC has gone through the list of the remaining qualified applications for the five remaining housing units – the three one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom barrier free units with accessible features for people with mobility needs or for seniors wanting the right size to age in the community.
“We’re opening it up again to the next stage of buyers that are interested,” said Oakley.
“I don’t think it will be a problem because they’re really, really great layouts. I think we just need to get the word out there.”
Priority in the Aster development was given to first-time home-buyers. Of the 28 units sold so far, 23 went to residents who had never owned a home before.
“Something we had heard over and over and over again throughout the Banff Housing Corporation was it really made it hard for first-time home-buyers or for singles to get into the market,” said Oakley.
“They were competing with people who had more points, who had more money, and so when we did the lottery, first-time home-buyers got first dibs on all the units,” she added.
“It will be a first-time home-buyer priority build no matter what, so if a unit comes up, it will always get preference to a first-time home-buyer to get into the market, which is super exciting.”
Future resale of The Aster properties will be tied to a maximum increased value of two per cent per year, compounded annually. The price restriction is tied to the amount the buyer paid for the unit when the property was originally sold.
The demographic makeup of residents who have purchased homes in The Aster is diverse, from seniors, young adults, couples, families and multi-generational families.
Oakley said one of the first-time homebuyers is over 70 years old and has lived in Banff for more than 40 years.
“She was so excited that she bought her unit and she marched down to the Banff Housing Corporation office and banged on the door with her deposit in hand that same day,” she said.
“That’s somebody who has lived much of her life in this community and has now landed on ownership. She couldn’t have been more excited.”
Another heartwarming story involves two tenants renting in the BHC’s 31-unit Ti’nu affording housing development who used that as a stepping stone to purchase a place at The Aster.
“Ti’nu sits at a below-market rental price point and so two of the tenants at Ti’nu saved enough money by living there that got into The Aster,” said Oakley.
The BHC has learned a lot about the local market that surveys conducted on rental and homeownership between 2015-19 didn’t necessarily reveal.
For instance, Oakley said large three-bedroom units seem to be in greater demand for homebuyers, rather than the one-bedrooms, which are in most demand for renters.
During the initial housing surveys pre-pandemic, she said there was a lot of interest in one-bedroom units.
“We had a mass exodus of people out of our community and we had a lot of people leave due to rethinking their lifestyle and where they wanted to be, so it was a little bit unpredictable going into this using historic data from pre-COVID,” said Oakley. “We didn’t know what had changed in the community.”
Of the 12 one-bedroom units in The Aster development, nine have sold.
Going into the development, Oakley said she was aware the BHC portfolio was heavily stacked with two- and three-bedroom townhouse and duplex-style units.
“We purposefully built more of the one bedrooms, yet a third of the applications applied for three-bedroom units,” she said.
Next up, the BHC will turn its eye to the development of a housing project on Cave Avenue. Pre-design is on the capital books for 2022.
The land parcels at 145-155 Cave Ave. were part of a Parks Canada land release in 2015, with a condition that affordable rental housing had to be constructed.
“For me, it’s always about having a well structured portfolio of housing to offer when we’re trying to create homes for people,” said Oakley.
“I am excited about Cave Avenue, but I want to see what happens when the YWCA’s new 33 units come on board and I want to see what happens with the market when these 33 Aster units are occupied.”
That said, Town of Banff officials say that findings associated with The Aster project, such as a preference for three-bedrooms for ownership, may affect plans for the development on Cave Avenue.
Oakley said she believes there’s a need to gather more data before making a decision.
“If we did think it was worthwhile doing more sales or doing a mix of sales and rental, we’d have to go back to Parks Canada, go back to the drawing board with Parks,” she said. “Nothing is written in stone.”
Initial work on the Cave Avenue site specific to geotechnical investigation and slope stability analysis to determine the initial viability of the construction of affordable housing on site has been completed.
Based on some initial work, which was presented to council in 2019, it was estimated the Cave Avenue site could potentially house approximately 81 rental units, broken down into 32 studios, 32 one-bedrooms and 17 two-bedroom units.