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Tofino Mayor Dan Law, construction workers and community members stand in front of the since completed Tofino Housing Corporation townhouse project during its construction. Photo: Catalyst Community Developments Society

Tofino small-business owners ask for permanent solutions to the housing crisis

Affordable housing projects are in the works, but employers continue to struggle to hire staff

By Tori Fitzpatrick , in City , on February 18, 2023

Tofino’s bustling seasonal tourism industry is under pressure because of a lack of housing and recent affordable housing projects have yet to ease the strain on the small businesses.

Small businesses like Jen Sherlock’s boutique hotel, Shoreline Tofino, are seeing deepening staff shortages due to the Tofino housing crisis.

Early in the pandemic, Sherlock was shocked that she had staffing issues, given that Tofino is an attractive destination for those looking to live near the beach. She soon realized that high rents and lack of availability were forcing workers out of the community.

Housing has been an issue in Tofino for years but, since the pandemic, the crisis has worsened. Sherlock has noticed an influx of high-income remote workers coming to Tofino, which is making it harder for service-industry workers to find an affordable place to live.

For Sherlock, that meant that she had to take on a larger workload, that would normally be distributed among her employees.

“There are so many people that I’ve met that have moved to Tofino just for six months to live at the beach and [they] can pay $2,500 a month, and this is kind of pushing lower-income folks out,” Sherlock said. “There’s a huge gap, a huge housing shortage in Tofino.”

Tofino, a town of 2,516 people, has 800 licensed businesses. Approximately four in 10 working people are in the sales and service industry. The price of rental housing in Tofino and Ucluelet had risen 69 per cent since 2013, and the price of a single family dwelling in Tofino has risen 108 per cent since 2012, according to a recent overview from the town’s non-profit housing corporation. 

Tofino’s economy relies heavily on the tourism industry, so Tofino residents can be affected by the staffing shortages even if they do not own a business, said Jen Dart, the executive director of the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.

For now, some workers are relying on temporary housing, like the units Crab Apple Campground provides.

Crab Apple currently offers 31 sites to their employees and other local workers at a site about four kilometres from the town centre. However, when the operators of Crab Apple recently applied to add an additional 81 units — 59 for staff accommodation and 22 for nightly tourist rentals — Tofino city council denied their application.

Mayor Dan Law says the application was rejected due to the inclusion of tourist rentals.

“T­he council is looking for creative residential housing solutions. They are not looking for commercial accommodation,” Law said. “Housing is top of mind [for] any application for rezoning or development [and for] any discussion with the Chamber of Commerce [or] Tourism Tofino.”

Despite the Tofino council’s opposition to tourism housing, it has spent the past several years making residential housing a priority. The Tofino Housing Corporation, an entity owned in full by the district, was created to develop below-market and provide safe and affordable housing for Tofino residents. 

The corporation completed a townhouse project in 2022, where 14 below-market units have been rented out. Construction is also underway at other buildings that will provide an additional 72 units of affordable rental housing, according to Ian Scott, the corporation’s interim executive director. However, construction on the new units will not be completed until the end of 2023.

Workers raising a wall on a new building that is part of the Tofino Housing Corporation’s latest affordable housing project. Photo: Catalyst Community Developments Society

“The district has done some affordable housing work, which has been  in terms of addressing the problem, it hasn’t really started to do that yet,” said Dart.

Even hoteliers like Sherlock can’t always find accommodations for staff — nor can they sacrifice the vital space in their businesses to make room. 

“Most businesses try to offer staff accommodation, but not everyone can,” Sherlock said. 

The businesses that can provide staff accommodations are generally larger ones with the available property to build housing units or long-standing businesses that entered the housing market early, according to Dart. That discrepancy leaves small and new businesses in a difficult position, where they may have to turn away workers who cannot find a place to live.

The Chamber of Commerce conducted a business survey last year and 47 businesses reported that they are short beds for their staff.

“That means a reduction in their service,” Dart said. “And it all relates back to housing.”

Dart hopes that, in addition to affordable housing projects, the district also approves more free-market housing developments, including privately owned developments that are built to provide long-term rentals.

“Obviously, we need more permanent solutions and, in the rental housing market, purpose-built rental housing is what this town really needs,” Dart said. 

“We need those socially responsible projects. We just need free-market housing as well.”