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The town-owned housing corporation in Canmore, Alta., has cut rent prices by 25 per cent to offset the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in a region where the tourism-dependent economy has been hit particularly hard.

The economic impact of the shutdowns and physical-distancing measures are making things worse for a community that already has acute housing problems, with a shortage of units driving up rents and home prices.

Landlords across Alberta are facing pressure to either defer rental payments or offer tenants who are facing sudden unemployment a break. The provincial government has prohibited rent increases and evictions for missed rental payments during the pandemic.

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In Canmore, the town owns and operates Canmore Community Housing Corp., which was launched 20 years ago to increase the supply of affordable permanent and rental housing to the local work force and long-term residents.

The housing corporation’s “perpetually affordable housing,” as it’s called, provides homes and rentals for residents at a cost less than Canmore’s market prices.

Mayor John Borrowman said that just prior to the widespread response to COVID-19, Canmore’s real estate prices were some of the highest in the country. He said the increasing prices of rental and permanent housing have even driven out some of the town’s residents who couldn’t keep up.

“We don't know where the COVID situation is going to leave us in regards to the issues we're talking about: housing, employment and all of that,” said Mr. Borrowman, who also sits on the housing corporation’s board.

“But, for the town, we're doing what we can in terms of the housing corporation, we're doing what we can to provide relief to residents in the community.”

There are 165 units in town that benefit from below-market rates through the housing corporation; 125 of them were allowed to apply for the 25-per-cent rent reduction.

A housing needs assessment conducted by the town’s housing corporation and Bow Valley Regional Housing reviewed the housing situation in 2016. It found 663 renting households, about 29 per cent, spent too much of their income on housing, labelling them in affordability need.

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About 200 people of them spent more than half their wages on housing, the assessment said.

Mr. Borrowman believes the rent reduction helped the vast majority of tenants make their payments, but won’t know how effective it was until CCHC receives the numbers later this month.

Unlike CCHC, the Bow Valley Regional Housing facility in Canmore is run by the province and doesn’t have the option of cutting rent prices to the 58 low-income social housing units in the town.

Bow Valley’s portfolio is primarily seniors with pensions and income supplements, explained Grant Canning, chair of the facility’s board. He doesn’t expect that those tenants will find it difficult to make the month’s rent.

“Where I do think we’re going to run into a bit of a challenge, and we know this is coming, is in our social housing portfolio,” Mr. Canning said.

“People who, you know, are really struggling to pay rent already and now a lot of them have probably been laid off and they're going through the process of applying for the emergency relief benefit and things like that.”

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Mr. Canning said the housing facility had been notified that at least 30 per cent of residents were going to have difficulty paying their rent. They haven’t received word from the province on how to handle the challenges that tenants are facing, Mr. Canning said, but are working on a case-by-case basis for the time being.

While Bow Valley’s facility awaits orders from the province, Canmore’s housing corporation will determine if it needs to extend the opportunity for rental relief to next month as well.

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