As a local who lived in Banff on-and-off for two decades, Nikole Poirier didn't think twice when she left the mountain town to help family members retire. But when she was ready to return, she faced a major issue: there was nowhere to live.
She started searching for a place to rent two months before she was set to return to Banff for work — but she had no luck.
Eventually, her employer provided her with a hotel room to live in so she could start working and continue her search from there.
She lived in that hotel room for a month.
"That was pretty shocking to me, that [with] the army of people helping me look for a place and myself, it took three months to find," said Poirier.
Cindy Heisler has been helping people find places to live in the Bow Valley for nine years through her prominent Facebook group Bow Valley Home Finder, which has more than 25,000 members.
She said the housing situation in Banff this year has been horrific.
"It's the worst I've ever seen it. It's twice as bad as I've ever seen it. There's just no place to rent," said Heisler.
Many long-time locals and new Banffites are struggling to find housing this year. Like Poirier, some are living in hotels and hostels, while others have crammed into a bedroom with bunk beds and multiple roommates.
It's resulting in a summer staffing shortage that's plaguing businesses across town. Unless employers can provide new hires with staff accommodations, they can't guarantee that they'll be able to move to Banff and find housing.
"It is just shattering human resources departments, fracturing them rather, all across town," said Poirier.
Worst staffing shortage in years
Michel Dufresne, director of the Job Resource Centre in Banff and Canmore, said Banff is facing the worst staffing shortage in years.
"I have never seen this," said Dufresne.
In talking to employers over the last three months, Dufresne said companies are about 20 to 25 per cent short on staff this summer. That's compared with the usual 10 per cent in past years.
He said those employers have had to adjust their way of doing business so they can operate with only three quarters of the staff they normally have.
Alongside those changes, and adding to the issue, Dufresne said some employers no longer have staff accommodations to offer those interested in working in Banff.
"We hear some larger employers are using hostels for staff accommodation, and even some of their own hotel rooms."
Ebony Rempel, CEO of YWCA Banff, said the shortage of accommodations in town is negatively affecting her organization.
"It's particularly dire for us ... in terms of finding staff accommodation for those that we need to have here to work in the tourism industry," she said.
YWCA staff are offered accommodation at its hotel, and Rempel said workers from other organizations often stay there as well.
Forty per cent of vacant jobs in Banff have available staff accommodation, according to Dufresne. But he said it doesn't always come through for employees.
"We've also heard that someone would advertise with staff housing, people would apply for the job and at the interview they were told that there was no more staff housing available," said Dufresne.
Something similar happened to Samantha Bruty when she moved to Banff earlier this month.
Cancelled staff accommodations, crammed into rooms
Bruty was hired in March with guaranteed staff accommodation to start her job in June. But five days before she was scheduled to arrive in Canada from England, she was told that her employer ran out of space for her to live.
She was then on her own to find a place to stay. Bruty eventually found a room to rent through Facebook, which cost her $800 for a security deposit and a month's rent.
"The money that I came with to Canada, half of it went within two days of landing because I needed to have a roof over my head," said Bruty.
After that month, Bruty was able to move into staff accommodation. She now sleeps on a bunk bed, living in a room with two of her coworkers — despite being promised only one roommate.
"You pretty much don't have any personal space," she said. "I'm lucky that I'm able to put my suitcase in a cupboard, but that's pretty much all I have."
Heisler said a situation like this isn't uncommon. She said she's heard of even worse living conditions, with up to a dozen people living in one house because they have nowhere else to go.
"It's almost like we don't just have an affordable housing issue or a housing issue, period, but we have a stability problem," said Heisler.
Poirier said she's witnessed this issue grow over the decades.
"I've never, ever seen this in such a way. I'm hearing people struggle because they're stuck in terrible rental situations that they just can't get out of because otherwise they have to leave town."
Where did all the housing go?
If summer is typically Banff's busiest season for visitors and staff, yet the town has never faced a housing shortage like this before, where did all the housing for those workers go?
No one is certain.
Sharon Oakley is the Town of Banff's manager of housing sustainability.
"It's a really, really interesting dilemma that we're in right now. And I will be honest that we are a little perplexed as to what's going on," said Oakley.
Oakley suspects that the pandemic changed people's living situation in Banff. While much of the world shut down in 2020, Oakley said many temporary foreign workers went back home, creating an influx of vacant units in the town.
As public messaging spread across the globe to avoid transmission of COVID-19 by socially distancing and avoiding shared accommodations, she said many people living in dense situations took the opportunity to get their own place.
"I think a lot of people are still questioning whether they want to have more roommates or not," said Oakley. "Which is why when we had the flood of people coming back to work, there wasn't the same availability in terms of accommodation."
Rempel from the YWCA agrees the pandemic has changed people's lives, with many now choosing to have more balance in their lifestyles.
She suspects people are no longer working multiple jobs as they had in the past.
"People that used to maybe work two jobs and would only need to find obviously one accommodation for them, now they're working less. And so we need to hire more people to do the same amount of work that we were needing before the pandemic," she said.
Heisler and Dufresne said it could be in part because of people who moved to Banff during the pandemic to work remotely and decided to stay — though Parks Canada's eligible residency regulation technically doesn't allow this.
"That should not be happening. You should have to work in Banff [to live in Banff], but it's not something they enforce, unfortunately," said Dufresne.
Heisler also said the similar housing shortage in Canmore could be inadvertently harming Banff, as Banff workers who live in Canmore and commute to work are losing their housing to vacation rentals.
"I think slowly taking away chunks of the market where people used to live in Canmore has really hurt balance," said Heisler.
Oakley said the Town of Banff should have more concrete data about the cause of the current housing shortage in the fall. In the meantime, they're actively working on creating more units to house residents.
"Our community recognises the need for more accommodation to be able to house people. It's certainly a priority for our town council, and it has been for a long time, to provide affordable places to call home for people that come to choose to support our community."