BOW VALLEY – It’s considered a basic human right and for many in the Bow Valley it’s also likely to be one of their top provincial election issues at the ballot box May 29.
Residents being priced out of the housing market or unable to find housing at all have long been issues for the communities of Banff and Canmore, as well as Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation, among others in the Banff-Kananaskis riding.
“We recognize through the budget and through the policies we put forward the past few years and going forward, just the incredible need for affordable housing right now,” said United Conservation Party (UCP) MLA Miranda Rosin. “In the Bow Valley, we have a disproportionate number of Albertans facing the housing crisis because their cost of living is so high.”
The impact, she added, is evident in the trickle-down effect on the labour force in both public and private sectors.
“We’re seeing that impact not only on the community and its ability to retain community members and build a place that people want to call home for the future, but it’s also beginning to impact the labour force and our ability to retain and attract workers, whether that be in tourism and hospitality or nursing or teachers,” said Rosin.
The towns of Banff and Canmore list housing as a top priority in their strategic plans, with goals that include enhancing municipal initiatives and services designed to increase affordability, and programs to help attract and retain workers to address labour shortages. But when Canmore’s plan was passed last June, council specifically called on all levels of government to assist with the housing crisis.
Rosin noted over the past three years, the UCP has invested more than $1 billion dollars to affordable housing projects across the province. Most notably, last month, the province gifted the Town of Canmore with a parcel of 2.3 hectares of provincial land valued at $8.7 million for housing developments in the Palliser area.
The land transfer comes with a pledge from the province to commit capital funding to build affordable housing there, though a dollar figure won’t be settled until the Town puts forward development plans.
“The transfer of those lands is our commitment to saying that the Town has this land now and as soon as there is a plan ready for it, we are ready to partner,” said Rosin.
The Palliser area is largely Town- and Canmore Community Housing-owned land. The region is consistently referred to as a key answer in helping deal with Canmore’s housing crisis.
Public feedback was sought on the Palliser area structure plan (ASP) in March, which will be reviewed by planning staff and be followed by a report to council. The ASP is expected to come forward for council consideration this summer or fall.
In Banff, council is currently discussing a bylaw that would limit the number of B&Bs allowed to operate in the town in a move to protect the community housing supply. The proposed legislation would cap the overall number of B&Bs from 65 to 36, with 15 of those to be located within buildings designated as heritage properties.
Last fall, a long-awaited $14.1 million housing development also opened in Banff to add 33 units to the YWCA’s affordable housing program. The new Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place can house up to 78 people and leveraged provincial and federal government funding contributions, as well as loans, to raise the capital dollars needed.
The new building is named for Dr. Priscilla Wilson (1929-2018), who was the first female doctor in town, a University of Calgary Senator, AIDS activist and medical officer of health for Banff.
Brendan Flowers, a Canmore physician and owner of Mountain Maternity and Family Medicine, recently spoke of the urgency to address healthcare worker shortages in the Bow Valley through housing at an NDP announcement in Canmore May 3.
“For a few weekends in February, nursing shortages led to our operating room closure, forcing families to travel to Calgary for their obstetrical care,” he said. “If we don’t do something now about housing, we will see more of these closures.
“Without affordable housing, we can’t retain or recruit the needed staff for our hospitals and our clinics. Homeownership and even renting is simply out of reach for many in the valley.”
Canmore Community Housing (CCH) closely monitors the local rental market, which, from 2020 to 2022, has seen an increase in the average cost for a two-bedroom suite from $2,010 to $2,735 per month. The average cost of a condo or multi-family unit is $500,000. A single-family home starts at about $1 million.
Lisa de Soto, former CAO for the Town of Canmore and strategic leadership advisor for CCH, said in the 25 years she’s worked with the Town, she’s “never seen the housing crisis this bad.”
“We have over 142 people on the waitlist for our rental program and over 170 people on the waitlist for our homeownership program, and that is a larger waitlist than our actual housing portfolio,” she said.
“That number grows every week. We continue to do intakes every week, but we’re not building the supply that’s needed to meet the demand.”
Banff-Kananaskis New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Sarah Elmeligi said the result is families not being able to put down roots in the Valley, and people being priced out of their homes.
“Banff and Canmore continue to face one of the worst staffing shortages in Alberta, in part because of the lack of affordable housing,” said Elmeligi.
“Even worse, we’re losing young people that want to call the Bow Valley home simply because they can’t afford a home and to put roots down.”
Elmeligi said the NDP won’t wait on affordable housing and plans to provide 40,000 Albertans access to affordable homes in its first term, if the party forms government at the end of the month.
The plan would include building more than 8,500 affordable homes across the province and increasing rental assistance to support 11,000 more families.
“For the Alberta NDP, access to housing is a human right,” said Joe Ceci, NDP MLA for Calgary-Buffalo during the Canmore announcement. “As life gets more expensive, we’ll make sure every Albertan has a safe and affordable place to live.”
The NDP’s plan also includes investing $120 million into the province’s Indigenous Capital Housing Program (IHCP), which supports Indigenous governments and communities in building affordable off-reserve, off-settlement and on-settlement housing. The IHCP was created by the NDP government in 2018, toward the end of its term.
When the UCP government announced its 2019 budget three years ago, it cut spending to the program. Funding was slashed for 2019-2020 to $5 million from $17 million, and each subsequent year went from $18 million to $10 million.
In the UCP budget announced this spring, funding was cut further.
Instead of funding the program by $10 million this budget year, as they had planned to do three years ago, it’s decreased to $4 million – a cut of 60 per cent.
In Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, the CEOs of Chiniki, Bearspaw and Goodstoney First Nations have reported housing shortages and waitlists higher than even that of Canmore, with a portion of the population. The Nations have applied to federal housing programs in recent years, but funding hasn’t come close to fully addressing shortages.
There are about 5,000 people living in the First Nation, and in February, Chiniki CEO Brian Evans said the waitlist for Chiniki band members in search of housing is 250 people alone.
A June 2022 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation report, titled Canada’s Housing Supply Shortages: Estimating what is needed to solve Canada’s housing affordability crisis by 2030, found Alberta needs more than 20,000 homes above the existing rate of construction by 2030.
Residents of the Bow Valley – especially those most at risk of losing that status – will likely be keeping a close eye on whichever government is charged with the critical task of building more roofs over heads in the next term, and will vote accordingly.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.