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Report paints bleak picture of housing in Sun Peaks

 | December 7, 2020

Last year as guests came to the resort for vacations (and spent an average of $500 a night if staying in a short-term rental) the staff who served them, scanned their tickets and waxed their skis were sometimes packed into dangerous and illegal housing. 

One housekeeper and barista slept in a boiler room with three others; their eight other roommates split four bedrooms. Another seasonal worker paid hundreds each month to sleep on the landing of a staircase in a large home and another rented an illegal suite with no windows in the bedrooms and only one door to the outside. 

It’s a shocking contrast that plays out in resort towns across the country and is growing more severe in Sun Peaks every year. The issue is complex with many factors ultimately resulting in not enough rooms being available for the working residents, who are integral to the operation and community.

A number of factors are contributing to the crunch, including homeowners who may be financially overextended, a lack of staff accomodation (reduced further by the COVID-19 pandemic) and the lucrative draw of short-term rental revenue. 

The municipality and other players are making efforts to correct the situation, but some slower moving programs, like the Sun Peaks Housing Authority (SPHA, a quasi governmental body created to offer affordable housing to qualified community members) and rezoning processes could take years to make changes.

A recent preliminary housing needs report by M’akola Development Services presented to Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality (SPMRM) council demonstrated clear issues around affordability and other housing issues. It’s some of the first concrete numbers the community has seen to gauge just how bad the housing situation currently is.

It found 33 per cent renting households have at least one of three core housing needs (in need of major repairs, too few bedrooms for the number of people or the shelter cost was greater than 30 per cent of their before tax income).

One previous renter told SPIN about living in the bottom of a duplex on Burfield Dr. She said neither bedroom had a window, there was only one door to the outside, and the only window to the outside didn’t open. 

She said it made her apprehensive not to have an escape in case of a fire, but added it was still a better option for her than the temporary staff housing installed by Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) in 2018. 

“(I) didn’t really have a choice at that point,” she said.

Mayor Al Raine said those types of conditions are unacceptable. 

“If people have built illegal, dangerous sleeping areas in their homes and we find out about those things we are going to shut down their operations. We cannot have employees living in places that are dangerous. 

“If there was ever a fire in those homes I think that there could be loss of life because they’re just not built to code.”

LACK OF AFFORDABILITY

The report also centered around issues of affordability.

In addition to the 33 per cent of renters who had a core housing need, 14 per cent of renting households in Sun Peaks were paying more than 50 per cent of their before tax income for shelter. This amount of income being used for shelter is considered an extreme core housing need. 

The federal government recommends spending no more than 35 per cent of a household’s gross income on housing costs.

One renter told SPIN after signing a lease for a two bedroom townhome they moved in three more people without the owner’s knowledge to afford the rent. 

When the leaseholder lost one of their jobs their rent cost 90 per cent of their monthly income. 

But it isn’t only renters who are overextended. The same report said 12.5 per cent of homeowners in Sun Peaks pay more than 50 per cent of their income for shelter. In the rest of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District that number falls to 2.3 per cent.

During the August presentation, councillor Rob O’Toole said he believed it’s an indication that some homeowners have purchased with plans to rent, either short or long term, to be able to afford their home. 

He said he believed homeowners would charge higher rents in order to be able to live in the resort community themselves. 

The report also showed the perception that Sun Peaks residents are wealthier overall isn’t true. 

The median income of homeowners was slightly lower than the provincial average and the median income of a renter was $8,000 less than the provincial average. 

And it isn’t just seasonal employees who make up the renter category. 

Forty per cent of Sun Peaks residents rent and one third of those are families with children. No numbers were released regarding the average price of long-term rental units.

Meanwhile the average assessed value of single family residential properties in the community in 2019 was $847,000 compared to $431,000 in Kamloops.

The average assessed value of a strata residential property in 2019 was $443,000, compared to $248,000 in Kamloops. 

The high housing costs reflect the reality of living in a resort town and in recent years more and more homeowners have offered their suites, condos or homes for rent on short-term rental sites rather than rent them out long-term to residents.

CHOOSING SHORT-TERM OVER LONG-TERM

A map of local AirBnb listings as of Dec. 7, 2020.

This  increase in property owners choosing to rent their properties short-term has often been blamed for taking units that previously housed employees off the market. 

In 2016 there were 109 short-term rentals listed in Sun Peaks on sites like AirBnb and VRBO. In 2019 there were 783. During this time Tourism Sun Peaks stopped offering its Central Reservations service, which may have contributed to the increase somewhat. However the report’s creators believe there was an overall move to prefer short-term rentals as it coincides with the boom in popularity of such sites.

In February of 2020, at the peak of the ski season and prior to the global shutdown from the pandemic, those short-term rental properties brought in a total revenue of $4.3 million that month alone.

It’s a tempting proposition for owners who want to maximize their rental income and avoid perceived potential issues with long-term tenants. 

Charmaine Clarke said when she and her husband built their home on Burfield Dr. they knew renting the suite would be necessary for them to afford the cost of building and living on the mountain. 

After taking possession of the home they got to work finishing the suite and securing long-term tenants. 

She said finding renters wasn’t hard, but in just over a year they had three different tenants due to changes in circumstances and challenges with the suite not having enough storage. 

After the challenges with long-term renting the couple decided to apply to SPMRM to rezone their property to use the suite for nightly rentals. At the time SPMRM had only just started addressing illegal suites on the street and hadn’t yet adopted the current Temporary Use Permit (TUP) system for short-term rentals, which allows the use for three years before an extension is needed

Clarke said the upgrades were expensive, even in the new build, and they did what they could themselves. She said she can see why owners of older homes could be put off of legalizing existing suites because of the cost. 

Ultimately the rezoning took around six months and the unit is now rented on AirBnb. 

She said as soon as it was listed for the winter it was almost completely booked.

“I definitely do understand that there is a housing crisis right now with everything and it was something that we were back and forth with,” Clarke said. “We did try the tenancy thing for a good year and a half and helping out people…but again just as far as our suite in particular it was not exactly the most comfortable living space.”

COVID-19 AFFECTS RESORT STAFF HOUSING

A bedroom in the temporary housing built by SPR in 2018. Photo SPIN

The issue has also been exacerbated this year as SPR adjusted its staff housing offerings to comply with COVID-19 protocols, halving the number of beds available for resort staff despite recent investment in staff housing by the resort. 

In 2018 a temporary building was erected to house up to 82 SPR employees. In 2019 a third, permanent, building opened adding 41 rooms (around 80 beds). The project came at a cost of $3.5 million to SPR.

This increased the total number of staff accommodation beds owned by SPR to around 250 beds, according to Aidan Kelly, chief marketing officer for SPR.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic the resort has been forced to reduce the number of employees who can share a room in staff accommodation, forcing more staff to look elsewhere this winter. 

Last year they had around 250 staff members in accommodation; this year it’s around 150. 

Kelly said the pandemic has changed how SPR operates common spaces. They’ve also forbidden visitors and overnight guests, enhanced cleaning and introduced procedures to limit interactions such as remote check ins. 

SPR has plans to add more staff accommodation as outlined in their Master Development Plan (a document approved by the province which outlines long term plans and goals for the resort) however, the construction timeline is uncertain. 

Other businesses have purchased village properties to house their employees, sometimes at a significant cost. But without offering units it can be nearly impossible to find staff. 

INHERITED ISSUES

Unfortunately the issues facing some homeowners have been amplified by important and well intentioned plans by SPMRM to ensure accommodation in the community was safe. Through the process of legalizing suites, and issuing short-term TUPs,  the municipality is addressing issues decades in the making, traceable back to when Sun Peaks was under the jurisdiction of the Thompson Nicola Regional District. But it may be inadvertently putting even more of a strain on long-term housing.  

SPMRM has set a deadline of Oct. 31, 2021 for homeowners on Burfield Dr. to come forward and legalize their suites through a rezoning process, regardless of the intended use. The municipality currently has no way of knowing how many of these illegal suites exist in the village. 

But for owners, some of whom purchased older homes with existing illegal suites, the costs to upgrade them can be prohibitive. 

While those rooms may ultimately be made legal by new owners, it could be years before they’re offered to renters and owners may choose more lucrative short-term rentals instead. 

“From our standpoint, unfortunately, these places were built illegally, without a building permit,” said Rob Bremner, SPMRM chief administrative officer. “If they would’ve been built with a building permit in the first place…it wouldn’t be an issue now where you’re having to spend this extra money to get things fixed.

“From a municipal standpoint I have a really hard time putting a cost on maybe somebody’s life. If it’s $20,000 and saves three lives [referring to buildings meeting code in the event an emergency] or it’s $50,000, I just don’t know that we can put a value on life and I don’t think we can put a value on, in some cases, what we’re expecting people to live in.” 

The rezoning process for Burfield Dr. to legalize suites is just one of a series of actions SPMRM has taken in recent years in regards to housing and employee accommodation. 

In order to legalize suites built without a permit, owners can address life safety issues, become compliant with the B.C. building code and apply for a rezoning which gives a site specific amendment.  

Should a homeowner wish to rent part of their home short-term they must apply for a TUP.

Originally homeowners anywhere in the village who wished to rent their suite nightly in a residential area were required to apply to completely rezone their property. 

However SPMRM quickly realized that rezoning, which is permanent, left them with little power should an owner be an irresponsible host, and badly needed long-term rentals would keep disappearing. 

It also meant that as other homes on the street applied to be rezoned there could be an overwhelming amount of nightly rentals in a residential area and even homes who weren’t actively renting were counted toward the total number in any area. 

“We quickly realized that that was probably not the best thing since we were going to put a limit on the percentage on each street as houses get sold or [owners] move on. We would be limiting the possible amount of that on the street even though we were trying to control it,” Bremner said.

Raine added they also struggled with homeowners who applied for rezoning not to actively rent the property nightly but to increase its value. 

“It was a mistake, I will admit,” Raine said. “We needed another system and it quickly made us think about temporary use permits, so if a property wasn’t being used we could take it back.”

So SPMRM adopted a new strategy. Homeowners who wished to operate nightly rentals in a residential zoned area could apply for a TUP which is valid for a period of three years, after which they can apply for a three year extension. Should they wish to continue with short-term rentals after that time they would have to apply for a new TUP.

Raine said ultimately he hopes the zoning will even out with new development, strict zoning and properties changing hands.

In fact, the current TUP process is something Raine said he would like to see phased out.

“The TUPs and spot zoning is a bandaid to try to address historical rentals going on prior to the municipality being incorporated,” he said. 

“My hope is that the OCP review we’re going to get to say there are new single family subdivisions where if they’re located along the slopes or close to tourist services those homes will all have short-term rental capability. And then we should have other areas that are maybe not right on an active ski slope…away from tourist services where those are strictly residential neighborhoods,” Raine said. 

SPMRM has also addressed nightly rentals in certain complexes which were against strata bylaws and municipal zoning. 

Such stratas were able to decide if they wanted to permit nightly rentals on their properties. Those who decided to forbid them could grandfather units to allow them on an individual basis but that condition does not transfer to new owners as units sell. 

“It really got cleaned up and has not been a big issue for us at this point in time,” Bremner said. 

Other policies have been implemented by SPMRM in an effort to improve housing including limiting the number of homes on a street which can have TUPS and requiring owner use or long-term renters in the part of the home not used for nightly rentals. 

The land use map as seen in the OCP.

THE HOUSING AUTHORITY

The housing authority was officially formed by SPMRM in early 2017. And should acquire its first parcel of land to develop this fall. But according to its president, mayor Raine, a construction date is not yet set. 

“It’s going a lot slower than we were hoping for, in terms of picking up the Crown land and getting projects going,” he said. “We’re still hoping that we’ll be able to get some funding to kick start the housing authority.” 

The first pieces of land sought by SPHA are in the West Village, one near Industrial Way and one near the current community mailboxes. 

Ultimately, he said, the idea is to construct housing which could then be sold to local businesses for their staff below market value. Should an employer no longer need the space they could sell it back to the authority at no profit. 

SPHA would also likely make units available to certain long-term, year-round employees to purchase. They could then sell them back to the authority with inflation accounted for. 

“We need to tie it back to employers. The number one person that has to be most responsible for employee housing is employers. Then we know the right people are in the accommodation because that’s in the hands of the employer. 

“It is an employer focused solution with social rules that are fair and reasonable for employees. Both sides need to be protected. That’s a tricky line to follow but I think we’ll be able to follow that.” 

It’s a solution that has been implemented in Whistler with the creation of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), which currently offers around 1,900 units for affordable rental and owned housing. Despite the large amount of units available the waitlist for the WHA can be years long. 

The municipality in Sun Peaks has also struck deals with local developers.

When The Burfield was constructed developer Ash Hanna agreed to make a third of the rooms available for long-term staff housing in perpetuity in exchange for increased density on the parcel.

In Hanna’s latest project, Burfield West, the SPHA will have the ability to purchase one unit below market value. 

A rendering of Burfield West, which will be home to one unit within the SPHA.

Raine said the agreement is something he would like to see more of in the future if there was support from the community. He added it would also likely mean changes to zoning bylaws to give the municipality more of a bargaining chip. 

“With some of the [other developments] they are within the zoning so we are not in the position to negotiate,” he said. “We can’t offer them some increased density and say…we’d like to have a couple of units. So that’s where we’d have to make a major change in zoning and the OCP to deal with either giving density or bonusing people certain things in lieu of their commitment to make some employee housing available.”

In the new Peaks West development, builder Darcy Franklin wasn’t required to make units available for long-term rentals, but kept two from sale and made them available to residents of the community to rent. 

He also rents other properties to three families and recently purchased a larger home with a number of sections made available to businesses for employee housing, 

Franklin explained his priority with having long-term rental units was to support small businesses in the community who can’t open or operate without properly housed staff. 

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

Despite individuals stepping up, the report indicates the severity of the crisis demands more attention and effort from the government and large employers.

Ultimately, the worker introduced at the beginning of this story moved to another resort, but said she misses the mountain.

“The housing market being so tough was definitely a reason for leaving. The jobs pay well enough to survive but the quality of life is deteriorated when you spend 50 per cent or more on rent. In some cases you’re paying for a cement oven, like my first place.”

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