By Michael Piasetzki
One of the easiest questions for Robson Valley residents to answer is simply why they choose to live in the valley, particularly if they moved here from a big city like Vancouver or Victoria.
Some may not even feel the need to answer verbally. Instead, many might simply lift a finger and point toward the majestic, white-capped mountains and the beautiful scenery that surround our communities as the main reason.
Other replies may include more living space and a great place to retire or raise a family with a higher quality of life, one that would include tremendous recreational opportunities such as hiking, fishing, and snowmobiling.
But despite all these fantastic reasons to live in our valley, reality also shows its residents face several hard and distinct challenges as part of everyday living.
According to a new report recently released by researchers at the Community Development Institute at the University of Northern British Columbia and the Housing Research Collaborative at the University of British Columbia on migration from metropolitan areas and the challenges for small communities, affordability—the main result of growth issues—remains one of the biggest concerns residents of villages such as those in the Robson Valley face daily.
“Getting more housing on the ground in these communities is a very urgent issue,” says Marleen Morris, Co-Director of the Community Development (CECD) Institute at UNBC and an adjunct professor in the Geography program, who was part of the research team on the report. “When you look at mainstream media you’ll always read or hear about the high cost of housing in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, or Calgary. They’ll tell you about renters who can’t pay the high rent in big cities. No one is doing that in the case of smaller communities such as Valemount except for the Community Development Institute.”
She says the reality is there are small communities where renters are more vulnerable than those in big cities.
“People just didn’t know this. Now the question is, what are we going to do?”\Morris points out that most of the housing stock in small communities is old and needs major repairs, and most homes are single detached houses, which reduces housing options. The influx of new residents can also strain municipal services.
“We need to focus on developing housing with creative and innovative approaches,” she says.
According to recommendations laid out by the report, those innovative approaches could include the assessment of housing needs, more community-led targeted planning with a focus on people and preferences rather than monetary aspects, a review and update of a particular village’s official community plan, a movement towards gently densifying villages through the construction of duplexes and townhouses, the construction of missing middle-income housing, creative housing solutions such as tiny-home subdivisions and developing an affordable housing reserve fund to support non-profit providers.
Other recommendations include the need to attract more experienced developers, expanding zoning for middle ground housing, establishing a vacancy tax to address seasonal use housing in smaller communities, and more stringent short-term rental regulations.
Morris also points out that a lack of affordable housing in Valemount—exacerbated by the recent sudden influx of workers from the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion—has triggered a cause-and-effect on its economy.
“When you have businesses that cannot hire employees because they can’t move to Valemount and find a place to live, that affects the village’s economy,” she says. “Then businesses have to start laying people off and that defeats the purpose of potential growth in a community.”
When asked for his comments on the report and its recommendations, Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson said his biggest surprise after reading it was learning that rural areas are now half the population in British Columbia.
He was also quick to mention that the average housing assessment in Valemount is not $2 million like in bigger cities such as Vancouver.
“That being said, I think there’s an opportunity for collaboration because of the legislative requirement to do housing needs assessments,” he said. “All local governments are doing that. Ours is due very shortly, and the regional district of Fraser Fort George just completed theirs. There’s an opportunity to continue good relations with the Regional District. Their governance also impacts Valemount since we’re municipal members within the Regional District. It’s a great way to continue along those lines to see what’s working and what’s not as far as housing goes.”
To read the report, go to tinyurl.com/3azkvk4s