Jeanine Smith pictured in her hotel room with her son Dakota Armstrong and his girlfriend Melissa Leclair behind. The family has been confined to a small hotel room while they search for a rental. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Hotel life a reality for family affected by housing shortage

Jeanine Smith sits on the edge of her hotel bed while her son Dakota Armstrong and his girlfriend Melissa Leclair lie behind her watching movies on their phone. Smith looks out the small window in the far corner of the room – even if they wanted to move, they couldn’t. The lack of housing in Fernie has forced them to live out of hotel room for the past month.

In the past month they have switched hotels, and rooms, several times. Previously paying $1140 a week, they were able to find another hotel which provided them a room with two beds, one bathroom, but no kitchen, for $840 a week.

Since Christmas last year the family, which includes Jeanine, her brother Aaron Smith, her daughter Skyler Strandquist, her son Dakota Armstrong, his girlfriend Melissa Leclair and their roommate Chris Fraser, have been looking for a new place. In December last year they anticipated that the four-bedroom house which they were inhabiting would sell, and it did. The new owners took possession on August 3. With no place to go the group, which now considers themselves family, checked into a hotel.

“You have three girls, three guys, sharing one bathroom,” said Smith, laughing.

The single mother never thought they would be in a hotel for as long as they have. In the past month the group has encountered several promising opportunities for housing, but they have all fallen through.

“We’ve had people call us, we’ve gone on viewings, nothing,” said Jeanine. “Absolutely nothing.”

It would appear as though the bustling mountain town of Fernie is filling up earlier than normal for the upcoming winter season. Posts on social media about homes for rent quickly receive over 40 comments by potential renters.

As of the end of July, the vacancy rate in Fernie was three per cent, and since then many have moved to the small mountain town.

Recently Jeanine was one of 16 in line to view a home for rent. She was granted a viewing but upon doing so, she was informed that the previous viewer was to receive the house if their credit check came back positive. Jeanine said she was shocked.

“Why is there a credit check for a rental?” asked Jeanine.

An employee of the Red Apple and volunteer firefighter, Jeanine said she’s confused about what the criteria is to rent in Fernie.

“You have three adults working full-time jobs, and not cheap jobs. We’re all locals, we’ve all been raised here, I have two kids. What’s the criteria to actually rent in Fernie then?” she asked.

Moving towns, she explained, is not an option.

“I have a daughter that still needs to finish school, I grew up here, I’m not going to leave now because of what, there’s no housing in Fernie? That’s not fair to any of us.

“It’s stressful, it’s costly, which – we’re running out of funds to keep doing this,” stated Jeanine.

Looking around the hotel room, she pointed out a pizza box on the counter top. Without a kitchen in their room, she said they’ve had to resort to take-out, which is also costly. In total, she said their costs are closing in on $2000 a week between the six of them to keep going and stay in Fernie.

Moving to Sparwood is also out of the question, as Jeanine explained they all work in Fernie, work different shifts and share two vehicles.

When they had trouble finding a home with a bedroom for each of them, the family agreed that they would make a two-bedroom house work. But still, nothing.

Smith moved to the Elk Valley with her family when she was 13 years old, 22 years ago. She explained how the town of Fernie has changed and evolved into a tourism mecca – a town which she says caters more to the tourists than the locals.

“They (the tourists) come in here, they get the housing right away and they’re set to go. Well they’re not the ones keeping Fernie going. The locals are,” said Jeanine.

Years ago, before tourism started to boom, Jeanine said it was easy to find a place to rent.

“I remember when I was younger, you can rent anything in two seconds, and there was no issues.”

Jeanine said the attitude in Fernie has changed over time.

“When I grew up here, Fernie was about locals,” she continued. “It really was. You knew the people on the street, everybody helped everybody, everybody had each other’s backs. And now, Fernie is about the tourism… and that’s not fair to us – at all. We’re the ones keeping this place going and yet the tourists are looked after more than the locals are looked after.”

She started to see this change when her now 17-year-old son was about nine years old. That being said, Jeanine said she has never before seen the housing shortage this bad.

She hoped they would be out of their hotel room before her daughter returned to school in early September. But she said it doesn’t look like this will happen.

Jeanine said she and her family are at their wits end.

“We can’t keep doing this,” she said. “There’s no way – there’s no way anybody could do this. We don’t know what we’re going to do.”

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