Kyra Thomspon has spent the past decade moving from community to community in British Columbia as she gets priced out of the province’s constantly growing real estate market: from Vancouver Island to the Okanagan Valley, and now the Kootenays in the B.C. Interior.
She first arrived in the small town of Rossland nearly two years ago and hoped to put down roots and buy a home after a few years of saving. But even in the tiny ski community of around 3,000, which is roughly an eight-hour drive from both Vancouver and Calgary, the same thing is happening again: She’s getting priced out.
“It’s so discouraging,” said Ms. Thompson, who is an apprentice in the food industry and says it feels like a down payment is a financial target that keeps moving further out of reach.
“Nobody that I know has a 20-per-cent down payment stashed away, especially after COVID.”
The new year is ushering in dramatic price increases for smaller communities that have already seen relentless growth in their housing markets. The average cost of a single-family home in Rossland jumped 33 per cent from $380,000 to $504,000 between July, 2020, and July, 2021, according to data released from B.C. Assessments in January.
That compares with a 16-per-cent rise in Vancouver from $1.7-million to just less than $2-million for the same class of house in the same period.
Jan Morton, president of the Lower Columbia Affordable Housing Society, which works to develop and manage affordable housing in Rossland and other communities in the region, said the recent jump came as a surprise, even after previous years of intense inflation in the housing market.
“We’ve been seeing upward pressure for sure, but this is a big leap,” Ms. Morton said.
“Anecdotally what we’re hearing is that with more people being able to work remotely, folks who want to make lifestyle choices are going, ‘Hmmm, maybe I like the idea of skiing at the resort here.’”
Local residents see it as a form of gentrification that is more common in city life. It used to be that gentrification moved from the downtown core to neighbourhoods that were further out of the way. Now, it feels like the same progression is affecting rural communities, first in cities such as Squamish that are within reach of Vancouver, and now stretching to places as far as Rossland.
Josh Swain, a local resident who works in construction and home renovations, said one of Rossland’s saving graces was how difficult it was to reach. Even if you came this far into the province’s interior, there was still the much more well-known city of Nelson just one hour north.
“It used to be ‘Thank god we have a crappy airport and we’re so hard to get to and there’s so many good resorts between us and the major population centres,’” Mr. Swain said.
“I don’t want to rely on that though.”
Mr. Swain moved to the town in 2005, but he wonders if his 17-year-old son, who also works in the trades, will be able to stay in the community as he transitions to being financially independent.
“It’s going to be tough for him to afford a house in Rossland,” said Mr. Swain, who says many local businesses simply can’t offer the kinds of wages needed to live in the community.
“I’ve heard more than one parent say, ‘My kid’s not going to be able to afford living here,’ or kids saying, ‘I won’t be able to live here unless my parents die and leave me a house.’”
He says the socio-economic makeup of the town is changing noticeably as a result. He hires entry-level workers for his renovation business, and finding people who are able to live in town with that level of income gets harder each year.
It’s starting to feel like more of a rich-person’s town, he says. It feels like gentrification.
Ms. Morton says one of the biggest challenges that small B.C. communities face is that their housing inventories are almost entirely made up of single-family homes. That means they’re not well set up to adapt to a changing population or to provide a soft landing for people who are arriving from urban communities.
That’s why organizations like hers are trying to promote higher density developments, such as an apartment building with 37 affordable rental units that is being built above Rossland’s new City Hall.
However, Rossland City Councillor Janice Nightingale says municipalities often have their hands tied when it comes to controlling housing markets, since provinces and the federal government generally have more power to implement policies such as B.C.’s foreign buyers tax and vacancy tax in metropolitan Vancouver.
“We can control zoning and land use, and those are really the only levers we have,” said Ms. Nightingale, who said the pace of growth is similar to other smaller cities in the province.
Ms. Morton, meanwhile, points to the nearby city of Castlegar as a prime example of what local governments in B.C. can do to fight a housing market that can escalate beyond a city’s control.
Castlegar is in a unique situation in the region. It’s 30 minutes north of Rossland and Trail, which have a wealth of tourism and industrial jobs. It’s also 30 minutes south of Nelson, one of the biggest tourism centres and most sought-after cities in the Kootenays. And a short drive from town are other industrial sites with ample job opportunities.
As intense demand drives up pricing in places such as Nelson and Rossland, home buyers have started spilling into Castlegar as a community that’s close enough to the action while being cheaper.
So when Chris Barlow became the Castlegar’s chief administrative officer four years ago, he moved with city planners to get a robust understanding of available land in town, purchase underutilized private land, create a housing strategy around exactly the types of developments needed and better communicate information on available land with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity to forge ahead with projects.
“In the past we’ve let the developers set the trend of what occurs in a community,” Mr. Barlow said, adding that the new direction was a marked change.
So far, Castlegar hasn’t been hit as hard as other cities in the region. The city’s year-over-year growth in property assessments for single-family homes was 21 per cent, compared with Rossland’s 33-per-cent growth.
In fact, Castlegar had the third-lowest percentage growth in assessed value of any city in the Kootenay-Columbia region, besides Kimberley and Fernie, which had lower rates of growth because of historically sky-high property valuations, owing to their reputations as desirable communities for Albertans to looking to own a second home.
In Rossland, however, new developments with higher density are met with disdain from some locals, who believe more housing will lead to more city folks discovering the town, its quiet ski resort and extensive bike trail network.
Mr. Swain isn’t in that camp though, and he says the onus is also on the people who’ve already established themselves in these towns to make them more livable.
He says he wants to keep his money in the local economy and invest in something that’ll be good for the community, so he plans to use his expertise in construction to build a rental building on a lot he purchased. It won’t have that many units, but in a town of just 3,000 people, every bit helps.
“The only way out of the housing crunch is more housing because we’re not going to have less people coming to town – the lid’s off that can, it’s happening,” Mr. Swain said.
He said the way forward is to provide housing that will benefit people who are being financially squeezed.
“I want to build in a way where I can create long-term rental opportunities and work-force housing.”
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