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Amy Makortoff stands outside of her new home in Nelson, B.C., while her eight-year-old daughter Elvie roams the yard.

Aaron Hemens/The Globe and Mail

Amy Makortoff says it’s hard not to take the rejections personally after spending nine months looking for a rental home in Nelson, B.C.

She said she rarely got to even hear a landlord’s voice on the phone before their property was snapped up in interior B.C.’s competitive market. The lifelong Nelson local and one of her daughters slept for months on a mattress on a floor while they were housesitting and searching for a rental home of their own. All of their essentials were packed in a plastic tub, and Ms. Makortoff’s optimism was almost gone.

This week, she finally moves in to a new home, although the house comes with the caveat of being more than a 30-minute drive from town.

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Ms. Makortoff has a job lined up and has lived in the city for years, but landlords will often cite simple things – or even her children – as a negative.

“Children seem to be a big factor for people which is really insulting and upsetting,” said Ms. Makortoff, adding that tenants are forced to sell themselves as if they were applying for a job.

“I’ve never as a renter had this much trouble. … Right now I feel homeless, I have all my things in a storage locker.”

Ms. Makortoff is one of many who are struggling to find affordable homes during a housing crisis throughout interior B.C. Realtors, residents and politicians say COVID-19 has only worsened the situation as more Canadians look to work remotely – and in turn increase competition and prices for limited stock in scenic communities such as Nelson.

Adding pressure is the resurgence of natural resource industries such as manufacturing, forestry and mining after they initially faltered during COVID-19. Such companies look for employees in exactly the kind of interior municipalities that are already grappling with supply and don’t have the capacity to house additional workers.

Nelson CARES Society, a community organization, said in its annual report that the city currently has a 0.4 per cent vacancy rate, and rising prices mean half of renter households pay 30 per cent or more of their income toward their lease.

Interior B.C. realtors in Fernie and Revelstoke say the situation is similar, and there was a noticeable uptick in remote workers from out-of-town looking for housing this year.

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“People are definitely finding interior B.C., and they’re saying, ‘Wow, this is a great place to be,’ ” said Lori Russell, a realtor in Fernie.

“Sales have been very brisk during COVID. Lots of things that come on the market … if you don’t pounce on it the first day, it’s gone.”

The situation leaves people such as Ms. Makortoff with mixed feelings. She shares custody of two of her children with their father, so she can’t simply relocate to another city.

“It’s frustrating because I know that people are moving here because it’s a better life, and that’s why I’m here,” she said.

She believes anybody should be able to enjoy the way of life in Nelson. “But I’ve felt that sentiment a tiny little bit: Stop moving here, I need a home, house our local people first.”

Ms. Makortoff said there were stark differences in her search for a home this time compared with a couple years ago. The two-bedroom house she left in 2019 cost $1,450 a month. She’s had to adjust her budget to $1,800 a month, but many of the listings she found were as high as $2,600.

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Nelson Mayor John Dooley said the city faces a slew of challenges when it comes to expanding affordable housing, including a shortage of available land, the high cost of delivering building material, and the complicated task of laying foundation on a mountainside town with many waterways.

But Mr. Dooley says people who work in Nelson can look to surrounding communities that are a half hour drive away, as Ms. Makortoff did.

“It’s very reasonable to live in this area within 30 minutes of Nelson,” Mr. Dooley said. “But if you want to live in the core of our city, there hasn’t been a lot of [single-family dwellings] built in the last 20 years.”

He called the drive along mountain highways “therapeutic,” unlike commutes in bigger cities such as Vancouver or Toronto.

But Trevor Jenkinson, president of the West Kootenay Landlord Society and a property manager in Nelson, said rental markets in smaller communities are also facing pressure.

“The way I describe it is Nelson is the peak of the tentpole,” said Mr. Jenkinson, who manages nearly 100 properties in the area. “When the prices in Nelson go up, it pulls up the other areas.”

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He says apartment listings in Nelson will often receive 40 or 50 responses, and smaller markets such as Castlegar or Trail are becoming competitive markets as a result.

Further east in Alberta, mountain towns are facing similar problems.

Banff and Canmore initially experienced a significant spike in vacancies at the onset of the pandemic, but the rental market is starting to pick up again.

Canmore councillor Joanna McCallum said she’s concerned about the advent of people working remotely in desirable towns such as hers, and the impact it will have on the community’s decades-long issues with affordable housing.

“Right now we’re seeing a lot of people become homeless or struggle with housing in general more than ever, which is really scary and shocking,” said Ms. McCallum, adding that the issue makes COVID-19 an even more substantial problem for vulnerable people.

“Now that people can work from home more easily and acceptably, I wonder if those folks are going to put even more pressure on our housing market and continue to squeeze local people out.”

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She said the town has identified housing as its number one concern for years, and is working to help develop apartment buildings and tweak residential laws to allow for higher density.

Two hundred and fifty rental units will come on the market in the next six months as two new buildings are completed, and Ms. McCallum says council will look closely at whether that has a substantial effect on stabilizing rental prices.

Dan Sparks, a realtor for 20 years, says Canmore has also seen a rise in housing sales.

Housing sales plummeted in April – one the region’s busiest months for transactions – with only 12 properties sold in 2020 compared with 76 the year prior.

But sales were back to normal by June, and rose sharply in July with 81 houses sold compared with 53 in July 2019. Sparks, a former member of the Canmore Community Housing board, believes the numbers are a direct result of people wanting to live in lower density communities with ample recreation after experiencing the pandemic in cities such as Calgary.

Banff has been spared from such housing activity, partly because its location in a national park means that residents have to prove a need to actually reside there, such as a full-time job.

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As a result, councillor Grant Canning estimates Banff’s vacancy rate is at 15 per cent, up from zero before the pandemic. The rise in vacancy is a result of so many local jobs being directly tied to tourism. At one point during the first lockdown, Banff’s unemployment rate reached an astounding 85 per cent according to a local MLA.

He expects that a rebound in the housing situation will be in sync with a rebound in the tourism industry, although the city isn’t projecting full economic activity to resume until 2023.

In Canmore, Mr. Sparks said the town will likely join interior B.C. in its rental woes when tourism returns to normal in the post-COVID world.

“Once the borders open up and we have international tourists coming up, eventually that’s going to be absorbed and we’re going to need more rental units,” Mr. Sparks said.

“We’re cognizant of the fact that affordable housing will always be an issue in Canmore.”

Realtors and city workers throughout the region agree there isn’t an easy solution to the crisis, but many say there needs to be more incentive to build affordable rental units.

“Any small little desirable town, I’m looking at you Rossland, Fernie, Nelson ... they’re all struggling with this question of people coming [from] outside their community and taking up some of their housing, and then there’s not enough housing available for local people,” Ms. McCallum said. She’s concerned that what’s left for locals usually doesn’t match local salaries and is sub-standard.

“It just keeps happening.”

Ms. Makortoff, the single mother from Nelson, said the only units she was able to see toward the end of her search were run down, with only one bedroom to house herself and her three daughters. But at that point, people made her feel ashamed for turning them down.

“It’s almost like people forget that I’m a human who has a right to a normal home,” Ms. Makortoff said.

“People just think, This is the world now, you’re not going to find something in your price range.’”

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