Stock photo of a ‘help wanted’ sign at a store in Fernie. (Joshua Fischlin/The Free Press)

Stock photo of a ‘help wanted’ sign at a store in Fernie. (Joshua Fischlin/The Free Press)

Writer’s Block: On the living wage and housing in Fernie

The Free Press columnist Bill Phillips on economic difficulties in Fernie

By Bill Phillips

For The Free Press

Walked into a local grocery store the other day and was greeted by a ‘help wanted’ sign.

Like everywhere else, they are struggling to find enough staff. The sign said some of the positions started at $19/hour, some were lower.

That was followed up by news last week that the living wage in Fernie is now $23.58/hour. That’s the wage two parents need to earn (each) working full time to support a family of four, paying for rent, food and utilities along with everything else the modern families need to survive like internet access, childcare and health expenses among other things.

For a single person, it might be a little bit less… but probably not much.

To put things in perspective, the living wage in Vancouver (where we often like to scoff) is just over $24/hour. Yes, in case you weren’t aware, we live in one of the most expensive communities to live in in B.C. (Anyone else notice that the price of gas in Fernie last week was 20 cents a litre more expensive than at Elko and Jaffray? Why is that?).

So, it’s sad to think a decent job at a grocery store might not be enough to make ends meet

To bring it all home, I had a nice chat with a retail salesperson last week who was quite happy that she was finally moving out of her parents’ house. She said it took her three years to find a place she could afford in Fernie. She’s one of the lucky ones.

With the ski hill opening up, a lot more people are in town, likely making less than $23.58 an hour, looking for rental accommodations and wondering how they’re going to afford that $8 head of lettuce (OK, if they’re here for the winter sports, lettuce likely isn’t high on the grocery list).

The point is, we have some problems here… affordable housing, or the lack thereof, being one of the biggest ones. Along with that is the issue of affordable short-term accommodation for the scores of people who are going to work up the hill.

Pressure has been put on Resorts of the Canadian Rockies in the past to provide more accommodations for its staff. It would be wonderful if it followed the lead of Big White in Kelowna, for example, which sunk $10 million into housing that can accommodate 192 staff members. The reality is, who has $10 million sitting around (that was in 2017 so it’s not likely $10 million anymore)? That’s a big chunk of change for the resort to just pull out of its back pocket (how busy was opening day?).

However, hopefully the new mayor and council will pressure the resort to do more, because housing more of the ski hill workers at the hill relieves some of the rental pressure in the rest of town.

Another way to open up some more rental properties is for council to ask for the speculation vacancy tax to be applied in the valley. Not a popular move, you can count on that. There will be some screaming. However, the tax is specifically designed to encourage people with secondary homes to rent them out. It’s one of the travesties of our town, and many others… permanent residents can’t find a place to live while scores of houses sit empty for a good portion of the year.

Analysis of the 2021 speculation vacancy tax data indicates the tax encourages people to use their residential properties as their home or as rentals for people, according to the province which says between 2020 and 2021 nearly 26,000 additional property owners claimed the principal residence exemption because the unit was no longer vacant.

The B.C. government is expanding the tax in 2023 to include North Cowichan, Duncan, Ladysmith, Lake Cowichan, Lions Bay and Squamish.

Maybe it’s time to add the Fernie to the list.

READ MORE: ‘Living wage’ in Fernie at $23.58 per hour

ColumneconomicsHousingMinimum Wage