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Life in a motel or a campground? For some, it's a stopgap measure amid a housing crisis

In the Calgary area, campgrounds and motels are reporting an increase in the number of people staying long-term. Calgary resident Ashley Halas, middle, is staying long-term with her partner at a motel, having been unable to find an affordable rental that will accommodate her pets.  (Joel Dryden/CBC - image credit)
In the Calgary area, campgrounds and motels are reporting an increase in the number of people staying long-term. Calgary resident Ashley Halas, middle, is staying long-term with her partner at a motel, having been unable to find an affordable rental that will accommodate her pets. (Joel Dryden/CBC - image credit)

A busy thoroughfare in northwest Calgary features a strip of low-cost hotels, motels and lodges. Signs along 16th Avenue N.W. advertise their features: cable TV, free local calls and coin-operated laundry. One announces "Microwave and fridge on request."

Now there's something of a growing trend — guests renting by the month.

Many owners in the Montgomery district aren't keen to talk about monthly stay rates with reporters, but they do offer up some basic details. Yes, it's happening more often than usual. In some cases, the owners say, tenants who can't find affordable rental options have been staying at these motels for months, or even years.

And it's not just motels people are turning to during an ongoing housing crisis that has gripped Calgary and the country. A campground roughly 40 kilometres east of the city, run by the Strathmore and District Agricultural Society, usually has about 30 full hookup spots booked for the winter out of its total of 45. This year, they're all occupied.

"It's not normal," said Ryan Schmidt, head of the Strathmore Agricultural Society. "Anecdotally, we've definitely heard from people that, you know, there's just no other options available to them. So they're trying to make it work in the campground."

A number of motels along Calgary’s “motel village” offer monthly rates, an option some are turning to amid an ongoing rental shortage in the city.
A number of motels along Calgary’s “motel village” offer monthly rates, an option some are turning to amid an ongoing rental shortage in the city.

A number of motels in Calgary offer monthly rates, an option some are turning to amid an ongoing rental shortage in the city. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

According to the City of Calgary's most recent housing needs assessment, nearly one-fifth of Calgary households could not afford their housing in 2021. Given market housing conditions, the city said it expects 2023 numbers are even higher.

In late October, a report published by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy suggested more than 115,000 Calgarians are at high risk of homelessness. Calgary's rental vacancy rates, meanwhile, have reached near-decade lows.

At one motel in Calgary's north with dozens of suites, the owner gives the OK to knock on doors — if his establishment isn't mentioned by name. Behind one of those doors is Ashley Halas, 39.

She's been staying in the motel with her partner and her three pets for a little more than a year.

Halas and her partner struggled to find a rental at a price range they could afford, and competition for available, pet-friendly places has made the whole situation feel impossible.

"It's been very frustrating. I sometimes just stop looking," said Halas, who works in Calgary in a customer service role. "It's just a daily battle."

'We were facing homelessness in, like, 4 days'

At the campground near Strathmore, Dan May and Leah Wheeldon live with their pug Sadie. They've been living at the campground in their 1977 Dodge Coachmen Leprechaun since September.

May commutes to work as a tire technician in Calgary, while Wheeldon is training to be a cook at a Strathmore restaurant. A year or so ago, they could afford renting a one-bedroom basement suite in Calgary for $950 a month. But after rents started to rise, they had a hard time finding another place, even after scaling down.

"We did run into an experience where we almost didn't get a place, and it was getting really hairy. Like, are we gonna have anywhere to live?" May said. "We were facing homelessness in, like, four days. And luckily, we grabbed a place the last second, but I didn't want to go through that again."

Not knowing where you're going to live or pay for food is a stressful experience, and May said it has left them with a sense of disillusionment.

"We're just disappointed, you know, it's gone that route," he said. "The greed has gotten so out of control, and you see it everywhere. Like, it's unreal."

Spots at the campground costs $975 to $1,000 per month for a full hookup, which are set up with water lines equipped for year-round use.

CBC News contacted other campgrounds, including two in the Cochrane area and another near Bassano, Alta., all of which are seeing similar trends to varying degrees.

"We are seeing a lot of people worried. You have the rent costs [which are] so high, that all of a sudden we're a little more economical," said Sean Veraart, owner of the Spring Hill RV Park, located north of Cochrane.

With low vacancy rates, mortgage costs at 22-year highs and Alberta's population booming, many worry about a perfect storm of factors the city isn't equipped to handle.

"One in five households are on the cusp of housing insecurity, meaning that you could be a paycheque or two away from being a first-time shelter user," said Matt Nomura with the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

"That's a real simplistic way of tying together a really complex situation that we're in as Albertans."

Life at the motel

For Halas at the northeast Calgary motel, life can seem like normal apartment living in some ways. She has her own suite with a tiny fridge and a microwave to do some basic cooking, though eating healthy is a challenge given the space constraints.

Given the nature of this motel, with a number of individuals living long-term, there's a small community that has formed. Over time, Halas has said she's made friends with other tenants. Some get into the festive spirit and put up Christmas lights around the holiday season.

But there are headaches associated with living in the space long-term. Living here means one has to adapt to living simply, and there is a constant stream of new people moving in and out of the suites around you.

"Everyone has come here for a different reason. And that is a challenge in itself, right? To be respectful of that and to stay within your own circumstances, but also be friendly and supportive to people that may be out of town," Halas said.

"But I believe that everyone deserves to have a roof over their head, and everyone deserves to rest."

With three animals, 39-year-old Ashley Halas says she’s struggled to find suitable rental accommodation, sometimes finding herself facing off against 300 to 400 other applicants, with prices far past her budget.
With three animals, 39-year-old Ashley Halas says she’s struggled to find suitable rental accommodation, sometimes finding herself facing off against 300 to 400 other applicants, with prices far past her budget.

With three animals, 39-year-old Ashley Halas says she’s struggled to find suitable rental accommodation, sometimes finding herself facing off against 300 to 400 other applicants, with prices far past her budget. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Monthly rates for long-term tenants in this motel vary, depending on how long they've been staying and how large their rooms are, Halas says.

A few doors down from her, a man staying long-term who declines to give his name says he's paying around $1,300 per month. The price is a good deal, in his view, though he notes it's "not the Holiday Inn," and he's not the biggest fan of the transient nature of many of his neighbours. Still, he's OK with his unique living arrangement.

"I'm not an iconoclast, but I do like solitude. So I have no problem with it as long as I can open my curtain and watch the world go by," he says.

Meaghon Reid, executive director of anti-poverty group Vibrant Communities Calgary, isn't surprised to hear that people are living in motels, campgrounds and even their cars amid the ongoing housing crisis. It's something the organization hears about all the time, but the whole phenomenon is difficult to quantify.

"We don't know [how many people are in this situation]. And I'm not sure that anybody knows. And I think that not knowing is a bit of a challenge. We know that the vacancy rate in Calgary for rentals is [around] two per cent, which is extraordinary," Reid said.

"If you think about our population of people who are looking, I would imagine there are probably more people than we have ever seen before staying in these long-term accommodations."

Meaghon Reid with Vibrant Communities Calgary says there's a lot of "desperation and panic" among those looking for rentals in the current market, even with those with a budget that would have been sufficient two years ago.
Meaghon Reid with Vibrant Communities Calgary says there's a lot of "desperation and panic" among those looking for rentals in the current market, even with those with a budget that would have been sufficient two years ago.

Meaghon Reid with Vibrant Communities Calgary says there's a lot of 'desperation and panic' among those looking for rentals in the current market, even for those with a budget that would have been sufficient two years ago. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Back at the Strathmore campground, winter has arrived. May showed CBC News what he's been doing to winterize their camper van, adding skirting around the bottom to keep the wind out.

The couple is worried about the winter but are hoping their heaters hold out as they plan to stay at the campground into late spring.

"I'm worried about it. But I'm confident in myself, I always find a way. So all you can do is prepare for the worst and, you know, hope for the best," he said. "So that's where I'm at."