BANFF – Lack of affordable and appropriate housing, over-tourism, high cost of living and a loss of community connections are putting immense strain on Banff residents, in some cases forcing locals to move away.
That is according to the 2023 community social assessment – a snapshot in time of the community’s well-being that was released to Banff town council on Monday (Jan. 22) – following robust Statistics Canada data analysis and more than 1,000 conversations with residents.
Despite valuing the small town feel and quality amenities in Banff for the most part, residents said there is a growing imbalance between a strong sense of community and the stress of not having essential needs met such as affordable housing and food.
“As residents shared their perspectives on how to make Banff better, challenges were reviewed and one principal theme emerged was that community well-being is under threat,” said Jill Harrison, community social planner for the Town of Banff.
The community social assessment is undertaken by the Town of Banff every five years, dating back to 2006.
In the 2023 assessment, residents said the top things they loved about Banff included its small town community feel, appreciation of nature and environmental stewardship, and quality and variety of services, amenities and programs.
Housing, however, was consistently reported as the No. 1 challenge facing locals, ranking 30 per cent higher than the other issues of over-tourism, high cost of living and lack of community connectedness coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Residents refer to it as a housing crisis and report it as the primary stress impacting their mental health, causing emotional distress and anxiety and the No. 1 reason why they would leave the community,” said Harrison.
Resident Chris Wright said he and his family have struggled with housing, having been tossed around almost as many living spaces in his 15 years in Banff.
“Being kicked out for renovations, or family returning to the unit, changing jobs or being priced out of the unit when the lease comes up,” he said.
Things weren’t quite as bad when Wright first moved to Banff.
“But with each year that goes by, I feel the strain and stress getting worse, for me, for my family, for many of my friends and co-workers,” he said.
“Rental units are nearly impossible to find, and those you do find have such high predatory rates it makes it very difficult to have a space of your own, or think about expanding your family.”
Wright, who runs the Lux Theater, said he hates seeing new young people in town struggle to find accommodation, and end up crammed in with 10 other people to a room.
“What bothers me even more is seeing friends, with children, or partners, or by themselves, that managed to find a home and then now have that torn away from them, and face the uncertainty of ‘will I have a roof for my family to sleep under next month?’,” he said.
“That just shouldn’t be a problem that we have, no one should need to fear being left in the cold, or having to leave the community and start over somewhere more affordable.”
Wright said this is why he has been vocal about removing parking requirements tied to housing, and has always been in favour of increasing density and building height limits in town.
“Though many of us would love to have a garage with two cars, a yard, a spare room for guests, and a clear view out our window of Cascade, the reality is that we need more high-density, smaller square-foot, low-cost housing options in Banff to fit the ever-growing workforce, and families that live here,” he said.
Although more housing has been developed, the 146-page social assessment concluded it has not solved the persistently low vacancy rate nor has it adequately met the evolving needs of an aging and changing community.
“We are victims of our own success because Ti’nu, The Aster and YWCA now have long waiting lists,” said Harrison.
“People are incredibly grateful that new developments have come online, but we need more of them is what they told us.”
The Job Resource Centre reported a nine per cent decrease in job opportunities where staff accommodation is part of the employment package from 2018 to June of last year.
Residents indicated some employers have reduced the number of employees allowed in one bedroom post-COVID-19 pandemic for public safety.
“This is possibly part of the reason why we’re seeing a reduction in overcrowding, however, the unintended consequence of that is less staff accommodation,” said Harrison.
Data shows there was a slight drop in the overall percentage of those paying in excess of 30 per cent of their income on housing from 29 per cent in 2016 to 26 per cent in 2021.
It also highlighted there continues to be a notable difference in the impact of affordability between those who rent and those who own, and in terms of ownership potential, the cost to buy is increasing at a far faster pace than incomes can keep up.
“Renter households have a far higher prevalence of unaffordability compared to owner households,” said Alison Gerrits, the Town’s director of community services, noting this trend has not changed since the last community social assessment in 2016.
“There’s almost 500 renter households in Banff spending in excess of 30 per cent of their income on housing as compared to 270 owner households. Ultimately, approximately 800 households in Banff are struggling with housing affordability.”
In addition, Banff continues to struggle with a low vacancy rate, much lower than the average throughout the province, sitting at about 0.3 per cent in 2022.
“A healthy vacancy rate is between three and five per cent so we are quite off that number right now,” said Gerrits.
In previous social assessments, residents reported working at least two or three jobs to afford housing, but they could afford to pay for other essential needs and take part in fun activities associated with living in the mountains.
“Now residents are reporting they don’t have a choice – they must work multiple jobs and that’s just to afford accommodation,” said Harrison.
“They are losing access to other essential items and goods because of the affordability piece.”
Residents reported frustration at what they saw as a lack of enforcement of Parks Canada’s residency requirements, the so-called need-to-reside, and called for an annual verification system.
“Doing that in partnership with Parks Canada would make a difference in housing availability – that came up regularly,” said Harrison.
Mayor Corrie DiManno said the community social assessment is a valuable opportunity to dig deeper into the community’s mindset, noting the quantitative data helps inform decisions around programs and initiatives.
“Admittedly, a lot of it is tough to read. I have deep empathy for folks who are struggling financially, socially and mentally in our community,” she said.
“It is also very motivating to try to do better, to try to bridge those gaps and to try to improve the social fabric of our community.”
The negative impacts of tourism were ranked the second highest among residents’ concerns, with many believing the scales have tipped too far in favour of commercial interests since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Concern and frustration over traffic congestion, noise and vehicle pollution spilling into residential neighbourhoods, and a divided community over the value of the pedestrian zone were commonly cited.
Residents asked for more so-called “locals days” and there was also strong support for a tourist levy to support more programs and services.
Harrison said residents indicated tourism impacts were “upsetting their quality of life, their health and community wellbeing.”
“They are very proud to be ambassadors and residents of Banff, but they reported impacts of tourism, or what they referred to as over-tourism, resulted in challenges which outweighed the benefits of living and working in Banff,” said Harrison.
HIGH COST OF LIVING
According to the community social assessment, cost of living ranked third highest among concerns, with data showing Banff continues to see lower incomes than comparable communities such as Canmore, Jasper, and Whistler.
While there is an understanding that housing and cost of living challenges are not limited to Banff, Harrison said the costs have traditionally been higher in Banff and continue to rise.
Residents said they believe that to have a sustainable workforce local businesses must take a greater responsibility for keeping up with the wage gap, investing in staff career advancement and offering more local discounts and benefits.
Harrison said residents reported extreme stress trying to survive the increased divide between wages and cost of living.
“Residents are concerned for their mental health, reporting it is deteriorating with the constant stress of living pay cheque to pay cheque,” she said.
The 2018 social assessment showed residents worked three jobs and long hours to afford a place to live, buy groceries in town and participate in community life.
This time, some reported that this is no longer possible.
“Even when removing housing from the equation, the cost of food, goods and services are making it difficult for individuals and families to cope,” said Harrison, adding it's also difficult for residents affordable childcare.
Wright said the limited options for grocery shopping and household items, and demand that tourism puts on those supplies, makes affordability so much worse in Banff than it should be for locals.
“Spending $100 on two small bags of groceries and some deodorant at our local stores is heartbreaking, and I often worry about people I know who struggle to afford proper nutrition, or even skip meals because they cannot afford their rent and groceries,” he said.
“Or about the children my son goes to school with not having proper warm clothing in the winter, or a healthy lunch each day.”
According to Statistics Canada’s 2021 tax filer summary, 32 per cent of Banff residents earn between $20,000 and $40,000 a year – a greater percentage than in Whistler, Jasper, Fernie and Canmore.
About 17 per cent of Banff residents earn less than $20,000, 26 per cent between $40,000 to $60,000, 11 per cent between $60-80,000 and 14 per cent $80,000-plus earnings brackets.
Gerrits said there are more Banff residents in the $20,000-$40,000 and $40,000 to $60,000 earnings brackets than compared to Alberta and Canada.
“The percentage of Banff tax filers earning incomes of $60,000 or less, Banff has the largest percentage at three-quarters of all income earners in this category as compared to Whistler, Jasper, Fernie and Canmore,” she said
Total family incomes are also telling.
Gerrits said the median family income in Banff in 2021 was just under $100,000 at $99,750.
She said the highest family income was seen in Fernie at almost $130,000 followed by Canmore at $123,000 and then Jasper at $113,000.
“Five years ago, as we compared to other communities back in 2016, Banff had the third lowest median family income, with Revelstoke and Whistler having lower incomes,” said Gerrits.
"By 2021, Banff has now dropped to the lowest ranking.”
The average hourly wage, according to the Job Resource Centre in July 2023, was $20.88 while the minimum hourly wage has stayed at $15.
Not all employers guarantee work hours and residents reported having three or four jobs to make a 40-hour work week.
“Residents are concerned for their mental health, reporting it is deteriorating with the constant stress of living pay cheque to pay cheque,” said Harrison.
Coun. Hugh Pettigrew expressed grave concerns about wages.
“How are we going to nudge away at these issues … they are significant, especially to do with living wages,” he said.
Non-profit organizations and grass-roots groups have indicated they are dealing with less human and financial capacity post-pandemic, yet demand for support services is higher than ever.
“Not surprising, the top three programs residents are most dependent upon are free and low-cost essential services – Banff Public Library, Roam Transit and Banff Food Rescue,” said Harrison.
With stores more suited to tourist shopping, residents say it is getting harder and harder to access essential services.
“They’ve tried online shopping and the post office doesn’t have capacity, they’ve tried thrift stores but thrift stores aren’t always open,” said Harrison.
“Affordability challenges are impacting their mental health. They’re having to hunt and look for different bargains in different ways to access essential items.”
To alleviate high cost of living pressures, residents are looking for more support for food security programs, and local sustainability models such as the Library of Things.
Some suggestions were for European-style markets, expansion of thrift models and incentives for retailers to offer essential items for locals.
“There is also a real interest for Roam transit discounts to be more universal for regional transit … and they would like to see some kind of regular transit in and out of Calgary,” said Harrison.
Harrison said the constant ask was to expand Banff Access Program to include more programs and services.
“They want it more accessible to residents, to increase the income thresholds and hopefully provide more local discount days at places such as grocery stores and restaurants,” she said.
Gerrits said many initiatives to address residents’ concerns raised in the community social assessment are already underway.
“It can seem overwhelming when you look at things overall, but the reality is many of the initiatives that are underway right now are, in fact, responding to many of the challenges that were cited in this entire process," she said.
"It's not like we need to start from zero.”