T’is the season to talk about housing and the multiple housing issues in Fernie. The issues fall into two categories that overlap—affordability and the winter seasonal crunch.

Let’s start with the seasonal crunch. For the winter season, Fernie Alpine Resort hires roughly 500 employees to teach skiing, load lifts, rent skis, shovel snow, cook and serve food, housekeeping, and various other duties that are integral to operating a ski area from an opening in early December to the closing in mid-April. This adds roughly 10% to the population of Fernie for five months or so. Unlike most ski areas of Fernie’s size, the ski area has not built any employee housing.

Revelstoke Mountain Resort, just up the road, is building employee housing.

The Whistler Housing Authority is an independent municipally owned corporation created to oversee the development, administration and management of resident restricted housing.

Copper Mountain in Summit County offers employee housing, as do Breckenridge and Keystone resorts.

Telluride, always one better, offer luxury for employee housing.

In Fernie, we squeeze the 500 or so new folks into spare bedrooms, basements and closets for the winter. It works. Sort of. And it won’t change until Fernie Alpine Resort finds it too difficult to source employees for the winter and it becomes an economic necessity to build housing or until they apply for a new development plan and the Regional District of the East Kootenay (RDEK) holds their feet to the fire and forces them to add employee housing to their plan.

On to affordable housing. This is a little more complex, but to date the powers that be only really looked at half the problem and made no attempt to deal with the other half of the problem.

The official mantra is “Housing in Fernie to too expensive.”

Maybe. How do you define “too expensive?” Over half the year-round employees at the hill own their homes. In talking to Willard Ripley of River City Woodworks, all his long-term employees (five years or more) own their own homes. I know a raft of folks that started at River City and left to start their own shops. Most own their own homes. Talk to any contractor in town and you’ll find the same. Look at the Teck mine employees. Most of the families with a mine employee in the household own their own home. Those with two own for sure.

So, it’s pretty clear, the obvious part of the problem of “affordable housing” not being dealt with by the City is the wage issue. If someone cannot afford something, there are two parts of the equation. The amount the person makes. And the cost of the item. The fact they don’t make enough money to afford the item doesn’t mean it’s too expensive. It only means they don’t make enough to afford the item. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Chevy vs a Mercedes or a jug of 2019 red table wine vs a Malbec from a small family vineyard in France. How much you make becomes the critical half the equation. Income directly determines the “affordability.”

So, who does that leave?

The people is the service industry are the workers struggling to stay in town and enjoy the lifestyle of our valley. The big box and chains are notorious for paying minimum wage or slightly more. A quarter-an-hour is looked at as a great raise. Save-on-Foods was an exception until the Independent moved into town. Both are represented by the same union, but with the Independent opening, the union accepted lower wages at Save-on-More (then, still Overwaitea.). Rather than work for the employee’s benefits, the union capitulated to management pressure and dropped the wages of any newly hired Save-on-Foods workers to the lower level of the Independent store. Save-on-Foods in Fernie now has a two-tier wage structure with people who started recently actually starting at less per hour than the employees starting 15 years ago. Dollar for dollar, not even taking into account the issue of living expenses inflation. It’s easy to figure out who in the store own houses. Again, the long-term employees. The newly hired staff will have little chance to work up to that position.

And there is host of fast food joints along the highway, all of whom are known for low wages.

The New York Times wrote, “It turns out that the areas we thought of as “high-value” — finance and real estate, for example — are not the components of society we rely on as “foundational.” Covid-19 led to government definitions of “key” or “essential” work: Our most valuable, irreplaceable citizens are those who work in health and social care, education, public transport, supermarkets and delivery services.”

So, what does low income “affordable” housing do? Affordable housing allows the employers/owners of low wage service businesses, our essential jobs, avoid paying market wages and pocket the difference as greater profits. The City of Fernie and the BC Province essentially directly subsidize low wage employers by subsiding the rent of their employees.

It wasn’t always this way. The City used to own apartment buildings. One on Second by the Vogue Theatre and the other where Save-on-Foods sits. Each had 20 or so apartments for local residents. The first burned down. The second was sold and demolished to make room for the new location of the Overwaitea grocery store (which at the time paid well over minimum wage).

The City needs to step up and say affordable housing for our essential workers in town is a middle step to ownership. If a company is not paying a living wage, their employees cannot live in “affordable housing.” The City should not be a party to holding down wages and lining the pockets of business owners by warehousing workers. In fact, it is against the BC Municipal Code for the City to compete with or create a financial advantage for one business over another in their jurisdiction.

Twelve years ago, in the boom days of the oil sands, companies were coming to Fernie and poaching employees. At one point, MacDonald’s had to close for a lack of workers. They reopened by paying their front-line staff $25 an hour. As it should be. A living wage. No more with the drop in oil prices and drop in demand for oils sands workers.

It’s not rocket science. Do the right thing. The City must work with the employees to better their wages and move them out of “affordable housing” into their own homes, so the next group of residents can follow in their footsteps. It’s not a warehouse. It’s a stepping stone.

By Keith Liggett

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