A housing needs survey done for the City of Port Alberni shows that the city has some unique housing challenges. The “mill town” in the middle of Vancouver Island has always been seen as an affordable place to buy a house.
Now the place is so popular we’re in danger of becoming unaffordable for the people who already live here. It’s a precarious balance, says Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions.
“Council feels affordability is the biggest challenge right now,” she said. “It’s one thing to have rentals available….it’s another thing to have safe, affordable housing available.”
City officials spend so much time talking about how to increase population “and we don’t talk about how many people leave our community because they can’t find housing,” Minions said. A lot of those people are seniors looking to downsize and they aren’t finding what they need.
“We’re a single family home community. That’s what built Port Alberni, is the 2,400-square-foot house. We don’t have a good variety of options” like patio or garden homes.
Resident retention is also becoming a challenge as housing prices go through the post-coronavirus pandemic roof. While much has been written about homelessness and lack of housing, affordable housing for low- or middle-income families is becoming a challenge.
The city works closely with BC Housing to find ways to create new housing opportunities. Officials have been able to donate land for some projects, and Minions said more are in the works.
While the bread and butter for the Port Alberni real estate market remains the two-storey single family dwellings, Chris Fenton of Royal LePage Port Alberni/ Pacific Rim Realty is heartened by recent announcements of seniors’ housing developments. “It’s something we’ve needed for a long time,” he said.
Port Alberni is seeing younger “retirees” in their late 50s and early 60s purchasing homes for their future retirement, and there aren’t enough single-storey, rancher-style homes to meet demand. “What we’re really missing in Port Alberni is patio home developments,” he said.
Fenton also sees the danger of people being priced out of their own market in Port Alberni. The average house price is $442,000 and middle-class availability is quickly disappearing.
Victoria developer Chris Le Fevre of Le Fevre Group said he sees potential in Port Alberni, which is why he purchased land here for development.
“I feel change is already underway,” he said. Le Fevre purchased an empty parking lot that was once used by the Woodward’s and Zellers department stores in South Port, and intends to create a mixed-density housing development that will include affordable options.
Minions said the city is trying to attract developers such as Le Fevre and the District Group for the diversity they will bring to the city’s housing market.
“We don’t want housing to be a barrier for people to living in our community.”
Don Carriere of Carriere Homes Ltd. is a longtime Port Alberni resident and builder. One only has to see the projects he is building near the end of Anderson Avenue to know he has confidence in the city. “Port Alberni is a good place to invest as far as real estate goes,” he said.
“We are behind the times in terms of construction modifications.”
Carriere said the city needs to provide more housing options, such as carriage homes. Right now secondary suites have to be built under the same roof—for example, a second floor of an existing home—and that is limiting, he said. Qualicum Beach, for instance, allows single residences with detached cottages in the rear.
The city also needs to consider how new housing complexes fit in with existing infrastructure. “I understand growth is good, but growth needs to be parallel to the infrastructure that supports it.”
City of Port Alberni economic development manager Pat Deakin said more people are making inquiries about the city. He recently spoke to Bill Collette, CEO of the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce, and Collette said he has been getting requests from other visitors’ centres around the province for information on Port Alberni.
“It’s a great sign,” said Deakin. “It’s great to be sought after. We’re hoping that all of the [housing] developments coming into play this year and over the next few years will provide enough housing for those that want to move here.”