Addressing Revelstoke’s livability crisis

It's time to set aside blame and focus on finding collaborative solutions

Addressing Revelstoke's livability crisis is going to take a collaborative approach. Illustration: Sonia Garcia/Revelstoke Mountaineer
Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine February 2020 cover photo: Christina Lustenberger leads Mark Hartley and Jay Welz up the Swiss Glacier towards the pyramid-shaped peaks that bears the same name. Photo: Bruno Long.

This story first appeared in print in the February 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Revelstoke is never going to solve its livability issue if we can’t get past blame.

For more than a decade now, the city has been shifting from a resource-based economy to one more reliant on tourism dollars and the growing contingent of professionals who work online. The move towards a tourism and lifestyle-based economy was and is intended to see the community so many of us love grow and thrive, but it hasn’t been without problems.

Of these problems, perhaps the most pressing is the gentrification that has taken place, most notably within the rental housing market. No one really likes to talk about gentrification. It’s a politically charged word with a multitude of definitions that conjures an “us versus them” mentality. The process of gentrification leads to involuntary displacement of existing low-income residents in a neighbourhood while simultaneously preventing future low income households from being able to move in.

This exact process took place in Revelstoke’s housing market not only in the years leading up to the opening of Revelstoke Mountain Resort in 2007, but afterwards as well. The cost of living has risen dramatically over the years and it doesn’t appear that will change anytime soon. While the shift to becoming a resort town is in many ways largely responsible for the increased cost of living here in Revelstoke, there are also a number of other contributing factors. As the Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine reported in its January 2020 issue, the cost of food, fuel and utilities are expected to rise across the province. Minimum wage will increase to $14.60 an hour as of June 2020 — often the amount many service industry workers make. That’s still far below the $18.90 per hour living wage for Revelstoke.

From a blame perspective, it’s easy to lay fault. It’s easy to blame the resort, city staff and council, developers, business owners, landlords and absentee home owners for the high cost of living that has resulted in pushing out many of the community’s poorest residents, who could no longer afford to stay. But what if, instead of continuously focusing on who to blame, we shift towards a narrative based on implementing workable solutions?

Coming up with workable solutions will take a whole community approach

Adrian Giacca is probably best known around Revelstoke as the guy working on the micro-home project. For him, gentrification is something that happens when the needs and desires of existing residents aren’t taken into consideration.

Solutions to gentrification, said Giacca, need to use holistic approaches that include everyone at the exact same time. He also points out awareness is key to understanding both the problem and the solution. Rather than create an us-versus-them mentality when it comes to development, there is a need to create a framework so that developers understand the needs and vision of the community as a whole.

“Gentrification tends to highlight a specific minority and drive them out. It’s a cycle that snowballs on top of itself,” he said. “We are the problem and we are the solution; it’s the same thing.”

If we’re talking about finding solutions from a holistic standpoint, then it’s only fair that we consider the views of those who are often on the receiving end of blame. Rev. David Cooke says in speaking to people who own property, he has heard various reasons for their decision to transition their property to a short-term rather than long-term rental, the biggest of those reasons being that a vacation rental is often more economically viable. It becomes difficult to blame homeowners charging huge amounts for a rental suite when the price of a mortgage excludes many from traditional ownership. In 2019, the average price for a single-family home rose to $567,000 and residential property assessments increased by 10 per cent.

“You hear these reasons and it’s always sort of the people who we might blame for the problem, and they also recognize there’s a problem, but they also feel trapped,” said Cooke. “So to a certain degree I empathize with them, but as I look to solutions this isn’t just a problem with Revelstoke. This is a problem with western society in general. We value economic costs over human costs […] When people get renovicted, when they lose and it’s a question of where do those people go? Economically it doesn’t matter, but humanly it does.”

The bigger question, said Cooke, is how do we get ourselves to stop caring so much about the economics of the situation and start looking at the human cost.

Have the courage to truly listen when the most marginalized populations speak up

In June 2019, some of Revelstoke’s most marginalized populations had a chance for their voices to be heard. Collective Impact Revelstoke hosted an event that saw broad cross-sections of the community come together in an effort to begin collaborating on ways to reduce issues around affordability. The result of the initial Collective Impact event was the creation of a number of action teams, including a shelter action team.

Giacca, who is co-chair of the shelter action team, said people looking to find solutions to gentrification should look to actively participate in community.

Currently, the Collective Impact group is taking time to understand what the problems actually are before getting into solutions. Giacca admits that while it’s painstaking at times, it’s inspiring to see different members of the community truly listening to each other, rather than making decisions that don’t take everyone into account.

“That’s really unique and inspiring to Revelstoke. That’s a hopeful note,” he said.

Revelstoke’s new found approach to understanding its affordability issues by engaging all members of the community came too late for some, however.

John Todds and his partner Angelina Desgagnes made their way west from Ontario in 2005 after Todds’ brother, Greg, a pro snowboarder and an early pioneer of the Noboard, was killed in an avalanche in Trout Lake. Wanting a better understanding of the life his brother had carved out for himself, Todds immersed himself in the Revelstoke culture, joining search and rescue, working for heliski companies, spending considerable amounts of time in the backcountry and volunteering as a coach for the Revelstoke DeRailers roller derby team. Being in the backcountry, said Todds, was terrifying because he was always aware of what had brought him there in the first place.

“If you’ve spent time in the backcountry or lost friends in the backcountry, it’s really something else. It’s hard to put into words,” said Todds.

While working jobs that allowed him access to the backcountry helped Todds process the death of his brother, he discovered carpentry jobs paid a lot better. So that’s what he ended up doing, and along with it provided employment for others in the community.

He and Angelina eventually settled into a mobile home in Arrow Heights where they lived until 2019. In 2018 the owner of Crescent Heights Mobile Home Park issued eviction notices to all mobile home owners in the park, stating he planned to close the park and convert it back to bare land. A number of the park’s tenant, including Todds,disputed the end of their tenancy agreements, even going so far as taking the case to an arbitrator through the BC Residential Tenancy Branch. Those efforts were unsuccessful.

Unable to find another place to live within their budget, Todds and his partner found themselves heading back to Ontario. When I speak with Todds on the phone for this story I can hear him softly crying as we speak about the impact of losing his home, and the community he had come to love so much.

“That’s something that’s really been on my mind lately, the impacts of what we went through with the landlord and the Residential Tenancy Act. We’re told everyone’s equal. Everybody is not fucking equal. It’s really harsh to find out just how unequal we are,” said Todds. “Not only did we get pushed out of Revelstoke, we got completely decimated with no means of fighting back.”

With nothing more to be done for themselves, in early 2019 the evicted tenants of Crescent Heights asked the City of Revelstoke to consider adopting policies and bylaws that could address redevelopment of mobile home parks at the municipal level. Todds appeared at a Revelstoke city council meeting on behalf of the evicted mobile home residents, providing council with a number of potential solutions already being used by other B.C. municipalities.

I ask Todds which of the already-in-use solutions he thought Revelstoke could have made. “All of them,” he said.

“With the delegation I was trying to focus on solutions. The takeaway is they’re not really looking for solutions. There’s something else driving and it’s not the common man. The people we elected all promised to tackle this and they’re not. Developers shouldn’t be able to swoop into town and devastate whole families. I didn’t find the cost of living in Revelstoke to be horrible […] it didn’t become unreasonable until we had to look at starting over with nothing.”

The solutions already exist, we just need to have the courage to do something

Solutions abound when it comes to solving gentrification. The problem is that, no matter which solutions we choose, someone is going to feel as though they’re taking the brunt of the burden. Perhaps the solution to that is to look at the bigger picture and consider the benefits to the community as a whole.

Giacca’s micro-home initiative is one possible solution for Revelstoke. Through the initiative, Giacca says he’s looking at creating affordable home ownership. While he admits this is an altruistic vision and doesn’t have complete answers on what this will look like, the intention is when someone purchases one of the micro-homes they view it as a lifestyle improvement, rather than an investment. The money invested would rise with interested inflation and grow at a reasonable pace that would allow the micro-homes to remain affordable for the next 10 to 15 years. Doing this would mean micro-home owners wouldn’t see significant jumps in their annual property assessments, which often correlate to an increase in the amount of city taxes paid.

“It pushes people out when they can no longer afford the taxes connected to their home. Seniors have nowhere to downsize. They’re cashing out and making money on their property, but they have nowhere to move into so they have to leave,” said Giacca.

Increasing development overall is also a way to solve gentrifi cation. Cooke said while he personally thinks there is a need for more high density development, but he’s also aware there is often a lot of backlash to that approach.

“People think [higher density development] will lower property values or impact the perception of the town, but I would also say what’s needed, what we need to be talking about, are communal solutions like housing co-ops,” he said.

Implementing a housing authority with an inventory of rent restricted housing intended for long-term residents, similar to the already existing one in Whistler, could also help combat gentrification. And for those of you asking, affordable housing is unlikely to impact the resale value of your home. A 2017 blog post on the University of North Carolina’s School of Government site noted that a study done by online residential real-estate site Trulia conducted a study of properties near a low-income housing project and found that there was no significant effect on nearby home values over a 10-year period.

As for the cost of rent, no one is asking or expecting landlords to be altruistic. It does seem fair, however to ask landlords to look at considering the financial impact increasing rent may have on long-term tenants. This year the rent increase set out by the Residential Tenancy Branch is capped at 2.6 per cent, but that only applies to existing rental agreements. There’s nothing to stop landlords from raising the price of rent in between tenants. It’s a small ask, but perhaps landlords could keep the rent they charge consistent, rather than increasing it because the current lack of available housing has led to renters paying nearly all of their net wages to keep a roof over their heads. Developers too, should consider ways they can help alleviate housing affordability with outside-the-box approaches that don’t rely heavily on approvals from the city.

At the end of the day, there is a need to focus on pro-active grassroots solutions. It’s up to us, as individuals to keep advocating for actual changes that will address the rising costs of living in our community without pushing out poor people.

This story first appeared in the February 2020 issue of the Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.