This article first appeared in print in the December 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
Revelstoke Mountaineer: What is the Revelstoke Community Housing Society?
Glen O’Reilly, Revelstoke Community Housing Society president: The Revelstoke Community Housing Society is an independent non-profit registered society. Established over ten years ago as a committee of the City of Revelstoke, the ‘housing society,’ as we are often called, was separated from the city and became independent organization in January of 2017. Our goal, or mission, is “to provide, manage, and explore a range of affordable housing options within Revelstoke and area that are accessible to local residents.”
RM: What projects are you responsible for, and what are you working on in Revelstoke?
GO: The housing society has built three building and currently operates 14 rental units within those buildings. The society has secured funding and is currently in the planning and design process of an apartment building which will contain 24 one-bedroom suites, and is to be located directly behind the BC Ambulance station on Powerhouse Road. Construction is scheduled to start in the spring of 2018.
What are the biggest challenges you face fulfilling your housing mandate?
Funding and land. Or rather should I say, land and funding, because without the land it is difficult to get the funding to build. Let me explain. The bulk of our funding (like most housing organizations across Canada) comes from government grants, which for us is BC Housing and CMHC (with a grateful nod to CBT). Both BC Housing and CMHC require that land is secured before you can apply for a grant. Given the lack of land, and the current market value of land in Revelstoke, this creates a challenge.
Compared to many other resort communities facing similar housing issues, Revelstoke has relatively few affordable housing units. Why do you think this is?
There are a number of reasons and a few different ways to answer this question. In my view the problem is compounded by two factors. First, Revelstoke and its lifestyle are becoming a desirable place to live and create a home. This demographic is clamoring for real estate, which creates a hot and otherwise unaffordable market. The second, and probably the more important factor, is the seasonal influx of individuals that come for the active lifestyle and work within the service industry. Housing for this demographic is unnecessarily limited and unfortunately service industry wages do not go a long way to cover rental prices within this hot market.
In your opinion, what needs to be done in order to improve housing affordability and create more affordable housing in Revelstoke?
This is the challenge as ‘affordability’ is governed by four points: the cost of land, cost of construction, municipal fees, and profit. If a private developer were to build a 24-unit apartment complex in Revelstoke today, the rents would not be considered affordable, as they would be market driven rents, based on those four points. So which of these four points are reduced or eliminated to create affordability? I doubt anyone is going to offer free land to a developer. It can be debated that the cost of construction in Revelstoke is too high (again, market driven), Given the recent Development Cost Charges fiasco, I doubt the city is willing to give up its plethora of fees. Let’s be honest, developers are in it for the profit.
This leaves organizations like the Revelstoke Community Housing Society relying on government grants to create affordable housing. With all that said, there are developers out there who understand the need for affordable housing. The challenge is to find them, and then get the other three factors to work with them to reduce the cost.
What’s missing in Revelstoke’s current approach to affordable housing? What could Revelstoke be doing better?
What is currently missing and what would have the most immediate impact, in my opinion, is employee housing. If Revelstoke is going to be a resort destination then the resort-based industries need to have the infrastructure to support their industries. This is asking nothing more than what other resort-based industries have done in other communities for many years. Resorts such as Jasper Park Lodge were doing this in the 1950s.
The city has a habit of looking at each proposal, development, project, on a case-by-case basis. This approach allows specifics (like staff housing) to fall between the cracks or be pared back. What is needed are standard guidelines and enforcement though bylaws with regards to when the staff housing is required and how much is needed. If a hotel, resort, or business plans on building in Revelstoke and has an employee base exceeding a specific amount (specified within the bylaw) then they are required to build and maintain housing for a percentage (specified within the bylaw) of their employee base. This does not mean the business or resort has the option of cash in lieu of housing, as this just passes the responsibility of building the required housing on to another organization. Build the staff housing while you are building the hotel.
Let me be clear, I am not suggestion that the small retails with four or six employees has to start building staff housing (although many of them already have purchased homes for this purpose, simply because the larger employers have not burdened their share of the responsibility).
Industrialists such as Ford and Pullman understood during the late 1800 that good housing created good employees, and literally built towns to house them, however we cannot seem to get local employers to build staff housing.