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‘Just looking for a place to lay our heads at night.’

Dene Moore: Metro Vancouver’s housing crisis has driven people to smaller communities – which in turn, creates more local housing crises.
Joshua Rainey Photography/Shutterstock

The posts show up on social media regularly on local pages in Clearwater.

“Semi-retired couple looking for a rental. House? Suite? Whatever!”

“ISO accommodation. Please PM me if you know of anything!”

“Two quiet tenants just looking for a place to lay our heads at night.”

The scenic community on the southern cusp of Wells Gray Park has a critical shortage of housing, and it’s not alone. People pushed out of high-priced real estate markets in Metro Vancouver and other urban areas are moving to small-town B.C. in droves.

The in-migration is great, except those cashing out of hot urban real estate markets have pushed prices up in smaller communities where there was already a very low inventory of rental and affordable housing.

“Landlords are going, ‘I can make more money selling right now that I will make rent in rental income in 15 or 20 years, so maybe it's time for me to get out and sell these places, either to speculators or to new homebuyers,’ who are buying them up at a ridiculous rate,” says Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell.

Local businesses are worried they have nowhere to house summer staff in the community along the route to Jasper, Alberta, which sees about 400,000 visitors in a normal year and where local tourism operators are hoping this year will see a pandemic recovery.

Blackwell believes the problem is exacerbated by construction of the TransMountain pipeline, which has brought thousands of skilled tradespeople to the region, not all of whom are staying at work camps built for the project.

“God knows where you're going to put tourists this summer that used to stay in Airbnb and things like that, because there's not a lot available,” he says. “Campgrounds are full up with trailers full of TransMountain workers.”

Rent for a one-bedroom apartments are advertised for $1,800 to $2,000 a month, he says.

“I've seen postings for three-bedroom houses in excess of $7,000 a month.”

Clearwater may be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but other small communities in BC are experiencing similar housing challenges with the influx of new residents.

The most immediate need is for senior and low-income housing for those being priced out of the rental market, Blackwell says, and then for a major influx of new construction.

“People on fixed incomes are being priced out of their current rentals and ending up going from being homed to becoming homeless, which is a crazy thought,” he says.

Unlike Metro Vancouver and Victoria, the problem for these small communities is not space. There’s land everywhere. There is not enough skilled trades and contractors, not a year-round construction season, and not enough financial support for doing so, he says.

“For small towns, commercial bankers don't really look at us as a good prospect for lending to developers,” he says.

“I could use 50 (new homes) tomorrow and they'd all sell, easy,” Blackwell says. “Our real estate agents were calling around asking people if they wanted to sell their houses because there was nothing left to sell, they had so many buyers.”

New home prices have spiked as much as 40 per cent in some small communities beyond the 604, driven by people who have cashed out of the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley real estate markets. Many are retirees who live here during summer, travelling south in winter. That means they are not staffing local small businesses or pharmacies or the hospital, Blackwell points out.

If the people who do staff those essential services can’t find anywhere to live, they won’t be staffing them for long. There was already a shortage of healthcare personnel, teachers, retail and hospitality staff and this will only make it worse, he says.

“When you don't have anything available, those systems start to break down and I'm not talking very few available, I'm talking nothing available,” Blackwell says.

The other challenge for small communities is keeping up with this sudden expansion. Clearwater operates on a $2.7 million annual budget. By law BC municipalities must operate a balanced budget and infrastructure investments are covered by federal and provincial grants.

“When your local municipality is running on basically the cost of one and a half homes in the west side of Vancouver… these economies of scale really do damage our ability to get ahead of providing sewer and water to people,” he says.

“There’s raw land everywhere. The issue is whether or not people can line up the builders, the contractors, the sewer, the septic and make all the moving pieces required to build a house happen.”