This story is part of a feature that first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s July 2022 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:
Revelstoke has that special something; if you ask its residents, they’ll tell you about the strong sense of community and belonging. Some claim that Revelstoke is unique because it’s not a Whistler or a Banff type of tourist-dominated location; it is a livable mountain town.
Banff and Whistler attract tourists looking to check the destination off a bucket list. Despite Revelstoke’s other economic industries, such as lumber, transportation, and hydro, it may be well on its way to a similar status as these famous tourist destinations. Unfortunately, that status comes with challenges that many, if not all, mountain towns face.
Community Connections Revelstoke Society is an organization that supports individuals and families by providing and advocating for accessible, responsive social services. Siobhan O’Connor, Social Justice Advocate at Community Connections, puts it simply: the current housing climate in Revelstoke is catastrophic.
“There aren’t available units that are affordable for most of the folks that live here,” she says. Many people turning to Community Connections are on a fixed income, getting assistance or disability through the provincial or federal government. O’Connor says that assistance ranges between $900 and $1,600. “At the moment, you’re lucky to get a one-bedroom (in Revelstoke) for under $1,500 a month, if you can find one,” she says, adding that those prices are out of reach for most people.
Laurence Chanut, Emergency Shelter Program Coordinator at Community Connections, says gentrification is to blame for the city’s housing crisis.
“People that can afford to build large homes or really even rent here are able to, and then the other folks are being evicted from their units,” Chanut says. “Not all of them own the houses that they live in. So, the landlords are coming in, and they want to either demolish or move into their home.”
A report from the Emergency Shelter Program run by Chanut indicates that 37.5% of individuals accessing the program have lived in the community for ten or more years, and 12.5% have families with children.
Andres and Teresa are working community members and parents to two young boys. They’ve lived in Revelstoke for five years and have found themselves in the situation Chanut describes.
In November 2020, their home was sold. Fortunately, the new owner has allowed the family to stay but informed them of his intentions to eventually move into the residence. Andres and Teresa say they know the fragility of situations like these and began to look for new accommodation well in advance.
Andres and Teresa’s search has persisted for a year and a half with no luck. Andres says he’s utilized services to help with their search, such as making a profile with Revelstoke Property Services because they offer affordable housing. However, the scarcity of affordable rentals in Revelstoke right now is incontrovertible. The few rentals listed in the Revy Rentals Facebook group are expensive and get snatched up quickly, often by individuals willing to pay more per room than a family can afford.
“If it’s just you as an individual, it’s easy because you can get a room or little apartment, but as a family, we need a whole house and a whole house they rent for $3,000,” He says. “It’s because they can charge $750 for each person, and they share the house, and that’s nice for them, but we can’t pay $750 for each of (our family members). I can’t pay my whole salary just in rent. $3,000 in rent is too much.”
Erin MacLachlan, Co-Director of Community Outreach and Development at Community Connections, says that in an ideal financial world, you should only have to pay 30% of your salary in rent. That percentage is the same for subsidized housing in B.C., meaning if you’re receiving assistance, the rent will be 30% of your income MacLachlan says. With the current rental rates, Andres and Teresa would need to make close to $10,000 a month to afford rent at that ideal rate and provide for their family’s needs, something that they feel is difficult in a town like Revelstoke.
The illusion of value
So why are prices in mountain towns so unaffordable? The simple answer is that people want to live in an idealistic place and value that location because of a holistic idea.
Chanut says that in mountain towns, properties tend to become an investment in an idea. “Whereas property should be viewed as shelter,” she explains. “Everyone here is using this terminology as some sort of profit. And everyone’s trying to get on that bandwagon. It’s trending. Everyone’s doing it. They know they’re going to make money off of it.”
MacLachlan adds that she arrived in Revelstoke in 2008 when Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened and saw the value of houses go up astronomically because of something she refers to as speculation.
“The value of houses went up, and most people were blown away because three years prior to the ski hill, they were buying houses for $80,000,” she says. “And so much of it is about speculation. It’s not about actual value for what you’re buying.”
MacLachlan and Chanut suggest that the allure and trendiness of a mountain town directly influence the price of living there. It’s not as if a house falling apart is worth half a million dollars; it’s an illusion that living in the location adds value. But what happens when people start to leave town because they can’t afford to live? Who will keep the town functioning? How will it survive?
Why re-invent the wheel?
Whistler identified housing affordability as a tangible concern for local employees due to the presence of Whistler Blackcomb and proactively looked at other mountain communities that had surmounted similar challenges, such as Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge. As a result, the idea to set aside a separate housing inventory that would only be available to the workforce was conceived, and the Whistler Housing Authority was born in 1997.
Marla Zucht, General Manager at the housing authority, says it was created to meet the community’s evolving needs and help locals afford to live in a world where housing and real estate costs were increasing at a pace far exceeding local incomes.
To make the housing authority possible, the local government created a bylaw requiring new commercial development to contribute to employee housing. “They were going to be part of the problem by being a new business, creating the need for additional staff,” Zucht says. “The community was growing. Certainly, we wanted that, but at the same time, it would be creating strain on the existing housing supply.”
The bylaw requires new developments to do one of three things: Build their staff housing, provide offsite staff housing, or provide cash in lieu. Most businesses choose the latter and provide money that goes into a municipal housing fund, only to be used for employee housing in Whistler.
The Whistler Housing Authority provides beds, rooms, apartments and houses for rent, and the only requirement is that the applicant must work in Whistler to be eligible. The housing authority dedicates housing to families with occupancy standards that don’t allow a single person to rent more rooms than needed.
“So that enables families that have kids or even single parents, they get priority for the larger units because those larger units have to be occupied, every bedroom has to be used,” Zucht says.
The housing authority also allows people to buy houses in the town without paying the market price. Most local employees with moderate incomes would never be able to afford a house at market price in Whistler. However, through the housing authority, they’re able to own a home. The only disadvantage is when they go to sell, it will not be for market value. It must be sold back to the housing authority so they can re-sell it.
“We want employees to be able to settle down their roots here and stay here long term by providing them with stable, secure and affordable housing,” Zucht says.
Change is needed
Change seems inevitable for all mountain towns, and Revelstoke is no exception. The solution is change. Andres and Teresa hope for meaningful action that would make a difference in their family’s situation, like more affordable housing for families.
He says that owning is out of the picture, but perhaps it wouldn’t have to be with an organization like the Whistler Housing Authority in Revelstoke.
The City of Revelstoke has been developing a Housing Action Plan, a repetitive request from residents, to address core housing needs within the community. However, the plan is still far from becoming a reality.
“Change takes time,” O’Connor says. “We need more housing, and that takes a lot of time, but we need concrete change. We need to actually see rooms or houses available for people to live in. That’s what we need, but I fear that’s not what’s going to happen quickly.”