By Andrea Arnold

Valemount employers are feeling the weight of the housing crunch due to the 1500 pipeline workers living in the Valemount area outside of the accommodation camp. Some would like to see Trans Mountain as well as the local government step up and help the community find solutions for the lack of available housing.

Swiss Bakery owner Tim Haus had plans to expand his business but has had to put that on hold.
“I have had at least three staff that wanted to work at the bakery that could not find housing or did not want to commit to a job because the housing situation suggested they were not going to be able to afford current prices with their earnings from the bakery,” Haus said.

He said he is trying to find 3-4 staff right now for the busy season in spring, summer and fall to keep services the way they are.

“If I cannot find staff then I will not be able to provide the same services as last summer.”

Recently, one of his staff members moved out of Valemount, increasing the urgency for new hires. He currently needs a couple of high school students or other individuals for weekends and part-time shift coverage, and one full-time employee.

Jen Applebaum owns Rustic Luxury Home Service, a property management company serving the Valemount area. She says that the population boom concerns her for many reasons.

“Twelve of my former rentals are no longer rentals,” she says. “We had rental availability issues before, and it’s getting worse. I wonder if after the majority of people move on, if those houses will be returned to the rental market, or if they will remain private.”

She pointed out that the reported 1,500 extra people in town does not include partners and children of Trans Mountain employees. She predicts the number will keep rising as the project timeline continues to be extended.

“I am still getting many calls and emails a day asking about rentals, and that doesn’t include all the inquiries on Facebook,” said Applebaum. “They (the pipeline) are still hiring. I ask people why they accepted a job where there is no housing available. I know of people living in their car, and it’s winter.”

Short-staffed businesses are trying to keep up with demand. The employment website currently has over 100 Valemount-based jobs listed as employers work to meet the demands of the growing population. Applebaum worries about families illegally evicted without the means to fight back or a place to go, unsafe living conditions as people are crammed into spaces, and the greed bringing out the worst in people.

Her biggest concern as the numbers climb is the inaction on the part of local government.

“I would like to see Council put their foot down for a change,” said Applebaum. “They have a responsibility to protect the community. Not every aspect of the pipeline is horrible, but the impact on housing is not being addressed. I am angered, shocked and frustrated that the Regional District and the Village of Valemount is allowing this to go unaddressed in a public way.”

Applebaum acknowledged that the paving of 17th ave funded by Trans Mountain is a nice improvement, however, it was a need that arose due to their use of the road.

She has an idea that could benefit the whole community in the future. A fee paid for every pipeline worker living out outside of camp over the original proposed number of 150 (non-camp workers) would bring revenue for the Village.

At a rate of five percent of the workers’ living-out allowance, with the current numbers, the Village of Valemount could collect $262,500/month in revenue. A rate of half that would bring in $131,250/month. Applebaum’s idea is that this money would go into a housing fund for community staff housing and to cover the cost of a housing coordinator within the Village.

“This would not be an immediate solution, but it would give the community a long-term benefit to look forward to as we are drowning under the weight of the pipeliners.”

Near the end of July, Trans Mountain reported there were 500 pipeline employees not staying in camp. Six months later, that number has tripled. According to Trans Mountain, as of January 31, 2022, approx. 1,500 workers in the Valemount area were not residing in the camp community. They are also predicting that the population has not peaked, estimating that to occur “sometime in early 2022.” And while the Blue River 550 bed camp community is now open and could reduce housing pressure, Trans Mountain has not confirmed how many of the people staying in Blue River are moving from Valemount vs. new hires being added to the roster.

Not a balanced approach

Trans Mountain says their worker accommodation strategy “strives to balance economic benefits for local accommodation, retail and service providers with increased demand on accommodation and services that may impact the community.”

Although Glacier Fire Pizzeria owner Ryan Halliday has seen an increase in business, he is feeling the physical drain that comes from meeting the demand.

“Businesses are being run by owners,” he said. “Owners like myself and my wife who are working seven days a week, crazy hours. People can’t keep that up.”

Halliday says he would like to hire more help so that they can take a step back now and then to enjoy life, or go to the dentist and keep the shop open. They have not been able to get the staffing they need to allow that. Instead, they have had to close or adjust hours to take care of themselves. This creates more stress.

He is also concerned that the number of original residents that have packed up and left town due to lack of housing availability or the inability to run their business is going to have a lasting impact on the community.

He and his spouse are hoping to sell the business and have had a few people interested. Some interested parties have even requested that Halliday sell his house as part of the deal so that accommodation doesn’t become a problem, but Halliday says he’s not willing to use his house as a bargaining chip. He will continue to run the pizza shop until the lease is up in a few years unless the right offer comes along.
As the Village of Valemount works to hire a new CAO, they too are finding stress stemming from the current housing market, Mayor Owen Torgerson says.

Torgerson believes there is a long-term benefit to the community that will come from the influx of people, however.

“I see a few long-term benefits of the population boom we are currently going through,” said Torgerson.

“The type of industry pipeline staff and contractors work in will constantly have them on the road, no matter where their home base is. As we saw in 2007, we’re also seeing workers buying or building homes, becoming new residents and relocating here permanently—like I said—they can work from anywhere.

Some will have families, or start families, and that means students in our schools. Others will return to visit the favourite places they found while working here and that means future heads in beds for our accommodation sector and further tourism dollars.”

In response to the demand for housing, Valemount Affordable Rentals Society (VARS) Treasurer Korie Marshall says the society is working on their next project, but funding is not yet secured.

“We have applied for a zoning amendment to allow us to have a second primary building on the lot at 1290 Main Street,” Marshall said. “It is a large lot and currently only has a single-family home on it. If the amendment is approved, that would likely be the site of our next project.”

If this project proceeds, they would be able to add six or seven more single units to the site. The bachelor style is being considered because the Society thought they could be quickly and inexpensively built.

“But it is not looking so quick or inexpensive, so it may be a while,” said Marshall.

The Regional District of Fraser Fort George holds the temporary use permit (TUP) for the Atco-Simpcw Worker Accommodation Facility (WAF) south of Valemount that expires in December 2022. Although the permit allows for a 900-person accommodation facility, the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) only approved a maximum of 600 residents.

“I suspect another application to continue to allow operations of a worker accommodation facility (WAF) will be coming to the RDFFG board of directors over late-spring or summer,” said Torgerson.

Leading up to the renewal of the TUP near the end of 2022, there will be an opportunity for stakeholders to comment. The Ledcor-Sicim Limited Partnership construction and laydown yard across the highway from the Best Western was recently awarded another temporary use permit (TUP) by the Village.

“There are further opportunities to discuss the impacts of construction staff and contractors staying in the valley outside of the worker accommodation facility,” said Torgerson. “This is ongoing with the Village, Trans Mountain, Simpcw First Nation and the RDFFG.”