The coming affordable housing crisis

The dearth of affordable housing will have a worse long-term effect than high gas prices.

The great problem facing us that no one acknowledges is not rising gas prices. We will get used to those after a couple of years, and will continue to buy gas.

Our coming issue is the dearth of affordable housing in our communities. It will have a worse long-term effect on our economies than high gas prices.

WorkBC Elk Valley recently put out a call for Cranbrook workers to come take jobs in Fernie, to ease a severe shortage of workers that is effecting on the local economy. There was a caveat — it was suggested workers could carpool from Cranbrook to Fernie to start their work day, and back to Cranbrook at the end of their shifts, there being no affordable housing or rental units in Fernie.

A long commute adds an extra level of stress and exhaustion, even if you’re commuting on urban freeways which are designed for that. An two-hour commute, both ways, on mountain highways in all weather conditions would be more so. And consider — the target labour market in this case are young people, who would be heading to Fernie for what would be mostly lower paying jobs in the service industries.

Here are some points to ponder:

• It shows how much of the economy depends on lower level, entry jobs. I don’t think it’s something we’ve taken into account enough, in spite of our talk about the importance of the tourism industry and service sectors.

• We think of a long commute as an urban problem. That’s why so many of us live out here in the boondocks — to get away from that big city rat race. If a two-hour commute is becoming part of our small town work life, then the work had better pay really well.

• So much of it comes down to affordable housing, or a healthy rental property market. And Cranbrook, as well as Fernie, as well as every town in southeast B.C., is labouring under a lack of such housing, with no real solutions presenting themselves.

It is not getting better — the most recent report on Cranbrook’s rental market from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (Autumn, 2017), shows the entire rental market in decline. The vacancy rate has dropped — to 1.2 per cent. The number of available rental units has dropped. The average monthly rental has increased. And the number of people moving to the area has increased — roughly 450 each year, and most of them young people, according to the CMHA.

Recent plans to develop rental units in Cranbrook — an apartment unit here, a townhouse complex there — met with some rather vociferous push-back from local property owners claiming those developments would be detrimental to the neighborhood. Lowering property values, essentially. I suggest greater harm to property values would be a lifeless economy. A city of retirees or young families, with no young people to work in its service industry.

To its credit, Cranbrook Council rezoned the various properties mentioned above to allow for those developments. But much more is needed. We seem to base our idea of economic success on the sale of huge houses and the existence of large mortgages. But the time has come to think small. To think affordable. This is what will attract our workers, fill our shops, build our signs and even pave our streets.

I have personal experience, which I will share. In 1991, I took a minimum wage job in the B.C. city of V—, running the used book department at a Value Village. It was quite an interesting job, actually, and fun. And I needed a job, and there was none other in the offing. But I had no place to live. The vacancy rate in V— that year was approaching zero. I wasn’t very well connected in V—, so I slept in my car for six weeks, which was not a pleasant experience. I’d park by a green space when evening came around, and read by flashlight. My car was a Ford Fairmont, so I couldn’t stretch out my legs when I slept. Mornings were awful. I ate breakfast at McDonald’s, and have bird baths in various sinks around town. I finally moved into a bedroom of a colleague from work — and sometimes I wondered if I’d have been better sleeping in my car.

That was a pretty extreme experience, but in my long bohemian youth I had plenty of misadventures on the domicile front. Now, having a mortgage, a roof over my head, and a place to park my car still seem like the blessings of a benevolent, merciful god.

Barry Coulter writes for the Cranbrook Daily Townsman.

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