Thousands of people in Alberta’s Bow Valley region are being left without a family doctor, in the latest side effect of a housing crisis that has priced out families and made homes scarce.
Kendra Barrick, president and co-chair of the Bow Valley Primary Care Network, said the housing situation in Canmore, where a shortage has increased the cost of buying and renting, has challenged the agency’s recruitment and retention of staff.
“Some physicians have moved to Calgary or joined central practices where it’s more affordable because of just the cost of running a solo practice or a small practice,” Dr. Barrick said.
In the past six months, two more doctors retired from the Ridgeview Medical Centre where Dr. Barrick practices, causing the clinic to close most of its walk-in clinic availability.
“We’re actually giving those unattached patients a disservice if they are suffering.”
Housing has long been an issue in Canmore, a former mining town of about 16,000 about an hour’s drive west of Calgary. A combination of a seasonal workforce, vacation properties and several failed attempts at building new housing have pushed up prices and squeezed supply. This was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted some remote workers to relocate to a place at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Town officials and housing providers have said the crisis has rippled throughout the community, not only making it difficult to recruit doctors, but also exacerbating a staffing shortage and making it next to impossible for some families to remain in the community.
Attempts to build new housing – which many say is what Canmore needs to alleviate the problem – have been blocked by litigation and local opposition that has largely focused on the impact of development on wildlife and increased building density.
“It’s really grim,” said Joanna McCallum, a longtime Canmore town councillor who also sits on the board of Bow Valley Regional Housing. “The market in Canmore is broken and it has been broken for a long time.”
Ms. McCallum added that residents of the hospitality town are forced to compete with the rest of the world for a family home: “Everybody can outbid a local because of what our wages look like.”
Canmore currently has the highest cost of living in the province, with a living wage double of Calgary’s at $37.40 hour for a two-income family, according to the Alberta Living Wage Network.
The average cost of a single family home in the town in 2021 was $1.5-million, more than double Calgary, and rivals the country’s most expensive real-estate markets. The rental vacancy rate is 1 per cent, and zero for affordable housing.
Graham McDowell, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Calgary who leads a project called the Canadian Mountain Assessment in Canmore, moved from Vancouver last year and has been looking for a home for his family for the past six months.
They are fortunate to be in a position to afford a home in the town’s market, but Mr. McDowell said they felt stressed to move quickly so they wouldn’t get priced out.
“You start to think that X amount of dollars is just a reasonable amount to pay for a home and then you actually step back and you run the numbers,” he said. “The financial reality is actually quite daunting.”
After the Bank of Canada increased the interest rate in July, the market has cooled down somewhat, but that has not solved the problem, according to Canmore realtor Dan Sparks.
“We’re a very small market. This is an extremely small community with very low inventory,” Mr. Sparks said.
Mr. Sparks has nearly 20 years of experience in real estate in the town and previously sat on the board for the Canmore Community Housing Corp., which he said has struggled with properly addressing the middle class’s needs.
The CCH runs an affordable housing program, for which residents qualify by meeting certain residency and income-cap requirements. The agency is currently sitting at a 0-per-cent vacancy rate with a waitlist of more than 170 people.
Mr. Sparks said the town needs to develop more housing, but he understands that doing so is contentious.
“Certainly, it would be wonderful to not have more development to have maintained this idyllic little mountain town, but the cost of that is a loss of families who simply can’t afford to be here,” he said.
Ms. McCallum said the problem is not that housing isn’t being built, but that the right kind isn’t being developed.
Canmore’s residential zoning is split into three categories: residential for standard housing that cannot be rented out short term; visitor accommodation for short-term rentals under 28 days, such as Airbnb; and tourist homes that are used for full- and part-time rentals.
Out-of-town buyers seeking second homes are adding pressure to the market. While Banff National Park caps town residency and restricts it to only those who work in the park, Canmore does not have those same restrictions.
Mr. Sparks said that some residents worry about the town becoming a busy resort municipality like Whistler or Banff. However, tourist revenue is what the town is asking for.
Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert said the town, along with Banff and Jasper, asked the Alberta government for resort municipality status, like Whistler has. The designation would recognize the town’s tourism based economy and the need for additional revenue tools, such as a resort fee or tax to visitors.
“This does not directly deal with housing, but the need to use our resources for significant tourism related infrastructure certainly impacts our ability to use those resources to address housing,” Mr. Krausert said.
The mayor said the town is also looking to address the housing crisis through the newly approved strategic plan for 2023 to 2026, and the council hopes to develop more affordable housing through CCH. He also wants the province, which is responsible for social housing, to help address the crisis.
Alberta’s Minister of Seniors and Housing, Josephine Pon, was not available for an interview, but said in a statement that the ministry has worked with Bow Valley Regional Housing, the Town of Canmore and the CCH to “develop a fulsome understanding of the housing need in Canmore and identify local partnership opportunities to develop possible options.”
Councillor Tanya Foubert, who was born and raised in Canmore and has lived in a variety of affordable housing, said that the town is geographically constrained and development has been contentious.
“I go to places, other communities in Alberta, and growth is celebrated. It’s encouraged, it’s economic development, it’s new residents,” Ms. Foubert said. “And here it’s not necessarily met with enthusiasm all the time.”
Most of the housing being developed right now is commercial visitor accommodation, she said, because future residential land is currently caught up in litigation.
Last summer, Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Ltd., which owns the vast majority of the land available for all development in Canmore, including 665 acres in their Smith Creek and Three Sisters Village development sites, took the Town of Canmore to court before the Alberta Land and Property Rights Tribunal.
In 2017, town council had asked Three Sisters to provide a full area structure plan for both sites, which cost the company more than $11-million over three years to prepare. The company presented its plans last December, 2020, where they were heard by the public and ultimately rejected by town council the following spring.
Opponents argued the massive proposal would endanger wildlife and warned that the sudden increase in density from new buildings and tourism would hurt the community.
The company appealed the council’s decision to the land tribunal, which in May ordered the town to adopt the Smith Creek and Three Sisters Village plans “as submitted.” Town council has filed an appeal of that decision.
Chris Ollenberger, the director of strategy and development for Three Sisters, said both plans had a “spectrum of housing” and would create a minimum of about 250 rental units and 3,500 housing units, with 10 per cent going to the affordable housing program.
The Town of Canmore itself has a large area of land through existing residential zoning for future housing, of which councillors Ms. Foubert and Ms. McCallum said increased density could help address the town’s need for more housing and climate goals.
However, Ms. Foubert said Canmore needs the funding and partnership from the provincial and federal governments to make this plan a success.
“We have to use the land we have to the best. But all the time we take planning, the market – everything - increases in price and people leave our communities,” she said.
“There are no short-term fixes that are within reach.”