There is a shortage of rental housing in Sparwood. File photo

There is a shortage of rental housing in Sparwood. File photo

Sparwood vacancy rate hits 18-year low

Ponderosa Manor fire, shift workers contributing to rental squeeze: Mayor

Sparwood renters are feeling the squeeze as the vacancy rate hits an 18-year low.

After reaching a record high of 19.1 per cent in 2017, Sparwood’s vacancy rate plunged to 1.3 per cent last month, according to a District report.

This comes despite a 19 per cent increase in building permits issued by the District, with 10 new homes built in Sparwood last year.

Almost every year since 2000, the District has been contacting local apartment building operators, seniors housing centres and property managers to capture a picture of the rental housing market.

In 2015, staff extended the study to include private rental apartments, condominiums and homes.

Thirteen of the 17 property managers responded to this year’s study, which found the vacancy rate has continued to decline, dropping from 19.2 per cent in 2017 and 6.53 per cent in 2018 to 1.8 per cent this year.

Staff noted rates have been erratic, with no identifiable trend over the past 18 years.

“This ‘unstable’ vacancy rate is likely caused, in part, by Sparwood’s high dependence on a single industry,” reads the report from the District’s Manager of Planning Jeremy Johnston.

“This generally creates more uncertainty and fluctuation in housing demand over time.”

Vacancy rates have dropped across every category of rental unit.

Rental homes, privately-owned apartments and seniors housing are in highest demand, all with a zero per cent vacancy rate.

At present, there are no units available in buildings that are restricted to seniors and all have a waitlist.

In his report, Johnston said staff consider an overall vacancy rate of 1.3 per cent to be a good indicator of demand but an undesirable metric for the community.

“At this low of a vacancy rate, individuals looking for accommodation in Sparwood are likely not able to find it quickly and may choose another community to live in as a result,” he said.

The 2019 vacancy and building permit reports were tabled in council at the March 5 regular meeting.

Mayor David Wilks said the “drastic” decline in the rental vacancy rate could be partly attributed to the Ponderosa Manor apartment fire on August 9.

One person tragically died in the blaze, which gutted building B and displaced dozens of residents.

“We had an immediate reduction in 24 units,” said Wilks.

“That’s a challenge for us and I believe, some of the councillors have spoken to it, that we have not had any further additional rental apartments built in some years now.”

Shift workers employed at local Teck mines could also be adding to the rental squeeze.

Wilks said the majority of Teck employees do not live in Sparwood or the Elk Valley – an issue that has been raised during an ongoing review of Sparwood’s zoning bylaw.

“We have a challenge with what is called ‘hot beds’, so we have people that are just renting a bed so that they can stay here for four days, work and then go home again,” he said.

“And those are very hard to identify. We don’t know how many of those there are, we know there are a lot but we don’t have a number on them, and that becomes a challenge for us as well and then spins off from that to available parking, to a number of things.”

When asked if the District will consider applying for grants as the Fernie Family Housing Society has done in Fernie, Wilks said he’s open to all options.

“We would certainly be open to any and all opportunities that become available,” he said.

“We are hoping that this generates enough talk that we could certainly get some developers that may come forward to build more apartment blocks. That would certainly help us as well.”

Johnston agreed, noting in the building permit report that the number and value of building permits are expected to increase as the construction market starts to reflect increasing housing demand.

Have you had trouble finding a rental property in Sparwood? Contact Kimberley Vlasic at reporter@thefreepress.ca.

Other District of Sparwood news

Policing priorities

At the March 5 regular meeting, Sen-Sgt Jeff Harrold presented the Elk Valley RCMP’s 2019-20 policing priorities to council. Traffic, crime reduction and youth were identified as priorities last year and Harrold said the RCMP had good success in those areas. Over the coming year, he would like officers to concentrate on aggressive and impaired driving, crime reduction with a focus on repeat offenders, and youth by becoming more involved in schools. Council accepted these priorities and thanked the RCMP.

MP provides update

Council also heard from Member of Parliament for Kootenay-Columbia Wayne Stetski, who provided an overview of his riding and identified his priorities: small business, agriculture and environment. Stetski raised a number of issues, including the lack of affordable housing and daycare in the Kootenay-Columbia region.

Project Heavy Duty

The District of Sparwood will once again support Project Heavy Duty. The program introduces high school students to the variety of jobs available in the road building and construction industries. After hearing from the event organizers, council approved the provision of in-kind funding support up to $4500 to cover manpower, equipment, location and food services for one day.

Staff vacation entitlement

Council provided three readings to Officers and Officials Benefits Bylaw 1038, 2012, Amendment Bylaw 1249, 2019, which sets the annual vacation entitlement for District staff. After much debate, the bylaw was amended to read: Years 1 to 3 at 3 weeks; Years 4 to 9 at 4 weeks; Years 10 to 15 at 5 weeks; Years 16 to 19 at 6 weeks; and, Years 20 onward at 7 weeks. The amended bylaw will be brought forward to the March 19 regular meeting for consideration of adoption.