Housing assessment confirms what Sun Peaks locals know all too well

The housing assessment shined a light on the grim Sun Peaks housing situation—but why did it get so bad, and what solutions have worked for other resort communities?
File photo. Photo by Kyle James.

The recent housing needs assessment conducted by Makola Developments shows how dire the living situation is for some Sun Peaks residents and renters. 

The final assessment, completed on behalf of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, was presented to Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipal council on March 8. For employers, seasonal staff and locals, these findings confirm what they already knew—Sun Peaks is in a housing crisis.

Local employers struggle to find housing for their staff, nor do they have an idea as to when units might become available. The current municipal initiative, Sun Peaks Housing Authority, has been slow moving and many employers have invested significant resources to combat the issue.

Sun Peaks mayor Al Raine said he wasn’t surprised to see workforce seasonal housing and affordability as some of the biggest issues to come out of the report.

“There’s no question that all resort communities have this problem where there’s too many people staying in too few bedrooms,” Raine said. “It’s easy to say there’s not enough affordable housing, but how does one get affordable housing? Affordable housing means somebody else is paying the bill, unless the money falls out of the sky.”

The study, paid for by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities’ (UBCM) Housing Needs Report program, found the cost of a single-detached home— which jumped 47 per cent since 2015— is unaffordable for nearly all family types and income brackets. When families or individuals want to rent in Sun Peaks, they face an extremely competitive and costly market. 

According to Sandy MacKay from Makola Development, the firm which conducted the study, there are a few reasons why the fast-growing community of Sun Peaks ended up in this situation.

“Unfortunately for Sun Peaks, it’s in a really interesting position because there’s quite a large seasonal population,” MacKay said. “That census data doesn’t get to the realities of the lived experience at Sun Peaks and your permanent population, according to Census Canada, is relatively small. So that was sort of a real challenge that we had with the Sun Peaks study is that a lot of the data that we were asked to collect isn’t particularly relevant.”

The study found the Sun Peaks population is the fastest growing in the region, which swells each winter with a wave of about 700 Sun Peaks Resort LLP staff and an estimated 1,000 additional seasonal employees. MacKay noted housing seasonal staff is an annual issue for resort communities, but year-round residents also struggle with a shallow and costly housing market.

“For those sort of like permanent staff members who want to live in the community year-round, finding those affordable units is really challenging. There’s not a lot of land, and when there is land there it’s quite valuable,” MacKay said.

However, according to MacKay, there are communities who have implemented progressive housing solutions. Squamish, B.C. is currently working to put rules in place so developers must allocate a number of new units for non-market housing, or pay a contribution to an affordable housing fund.

Canmore, Alta. and Whistler, B.C. have established housing authorities to try and find solutions to their seasonal and permanent housing needs. MacKay said both communities took existing housing stock off the market, creating a non-market housing solution. MacKay noted both of these communities are older than Sun Peaks, and had access to existing properties—something the relatively new village of Sun Peaks doesn’t have a lot of.

While the population of Sun Peaks is growing rapidly, the amount of long-term rentals isn’t keeping up. The study found that short-term rentals fetched an average of $500 per night in Jan. 2020. The lucrative industry in Sun Peaks has grown from 109 short-term rentals in 2016 to nearly 800 in 2019.

Without enough available long-term rentals, Sun Peaks business owners have been left with little choice if they wish to hire and retain staff.

Reiner Brecht, owner and CEO of Bear Country Property Management, said his company would not have been able to grow without their own housing for staff, but they’ve reached an impasse.

“Right now we are not able to move on, to grow, because we don’t have any other staff houses,” said Brecht. “You know, our housing market is right now, it’s easily a million bucks to get a staff house.”

Bear Country employs 95 to 100 people during peak tourist season and around 35 during the slower months. Brecht first bought a house for staff in 2011 and now 25 Bear Country staff live between two houses and one converted office space. Brecht said some of the other local employers have had to get creative, sometimes missing out on profits just to have staff quarters. 

“Some of the hotels, they just keep their staff in the hotel and just book off rooms, that’s one way of doing it. Or [business owners] purchase or rent something all year round…. even if you only use it for five months. So it’s a severe problem that we have in Sun Peaks. And they sooner or later definitely have to do something about it,” Brecht said.

Brecht said he hopes solutions are implemented quickly to help offset the financial impact the pandemic has had on small businesses.

“Especially when coming out of COVID, we want to have next year a good season again, the following years as well,” Brecht said. 

Projections show the Sun Peaks population could grow to more than 1,700 residents by 2026. So, what does the future of housing in Sun Peaks look like?

MacKay said Sun Peaks is in a uniquely difficult position because there isn’t enough readily available space to create or convert into affordable staff housing, and the outdated census data has made it hard for the municipality to apply for appropriate funding. He also explained expansion is hindered by the red tape around land purchasing and construction, due in part to purchasing processes from various levels of government.

“These processes can take, you know, five to 10 years,” MacKay said. “Housing development is not an easy thing. And it always takes time. So I’m not sure that construction is necessarily the fastest way to go about it, but it would be a way to bring a large number of influential units to community members, all at once. It’s like maybe a bit longer, and maybe a bit more costly, but it’s a big, big bang all at once.”

Raine said new employee housing buildings are in the works, with one site near the community mailboxes and the other on Industrial Way. Raine said he expects First Nations and archeological assessments to be completed for both sites by the fall, but it’s harder to guess as to when ground might be broken on these projects.

In addition to the proposed construction projects, Raine said the municipality will apply for two provincial grants to complete a strategic housing plan.

“This plan would come up and say, ‘What should the municipality be doing, what are the options, where is the financing? It’s very simple to say, ‘We’ve got to make affordable housing for employees,’ but who’s paying? Who pays? Should the rest of the community pay?”

To read the report, click here.

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