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Tourism in Ontario’s Prince Edward County is booming. If only staff could afford to live there

For Samantha Parsons, hiring seasonal staff for the booming tourist season in Prince Edward County, Ont., is an exercise in creativity. 

The craft brewery owner has to find the right people — and often has to help find them an affordable place to live.

“We’ve actually had someone living in a bunkie, we built a bunkie,” said Parsons. “We’ve also considered purchasing a place for our staff members to live.” 

One staff member lived in the small building for about five months. This year, the solution for Parsons has involved her co-signing a lease on a house for three employees.

Parsons Brewing Company isn’t alone in its quest to find staff housing. Other small business owners are now routinely arranging or offering housing to try to secure summer staff who would otherwise be priced out of Prince Edward County’s red-hot housing market. 

The county — located east of Toronto, and south of Belleville, Ont. — has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, sending its real estate prices through the roof. Pandemic-fuelled migration to the county from the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa and Montreal has pushed house prices even higher.

pec staffing
The county’s real-estate market is booming. The average house price is now more than $820,000, while rent for a one-bedroom apartment averages more than $1,400. (CBC)

In the last year, house prices in Prince Edward County have increased 49 per cent, and the average rent has gone up 38 per cent, according to the Prince Edward County Affordable Housing Corporation’s (PECAHC) annual report.

By the end of March, the average purchase price of a house in the county was $821,000. The average rent for a one bedroom apartment was $1,464 a month. And there are bidding wars, even for rentals: In one case, a one-bedroom unit was listed for $1,415 and was eventually rented out for $1,725. 

Rural housing market outpacing Toronto

The county’s affordable housing corporation was formed in 2018 to tackle a crisis that the corporation’s executive director considers unprecedented. 

“It keeps me awake at night,” executive director Charles Dowdall told CBC News.

“Our rent and our real estate price increases have outpaced Toronto and like-minded tourist communities like the Kawarthas and Muskoka.”

staff bunkie at parsons brewing
Parsons built this bunkie beside the brewery so that staff would have somewhere to live while looking for housing. So far, one staff member lived in it for about five months. (CBC)

Two projects are in development to create 56 affordable housing units in the county over the next two years. PECAHC is also looking at other potential solutions to try to develop another 50 to 100 more affordable housing units in the next two to three years.

In the meantime, the lack of affordable housing means Parsons sees skilled workers move on to other opportunities, including one recent job candidate from Toronto with brewery management experience.

“They looked for accommodation for about two and a half months and it was just not a possibility for them to rent something in the county,” Parsons told CBC News. “So they chose to move to Ottawa instead.” 

Parsons has six full-time employees and for a normal summer needs to hire almost 30 more workers to handle the growing number of tourists that visit the county from the May long weekend through Labour Day each year.

Job seekers, employers stuck in limbo

The pandemic is further complicating matters.

“There’s a lot of hesitation simply because the contracts we’re able to offer right now all have this caveat around, ‘Look, if we get shut down, we cannot support 35 full time employees throughout the season,'” said Parsons.

Seasonal hiring is a guessing game across the county’s hospitality and service industries right now because it’s unclear when businesses will be allowed to open, and how COVID-19 restrictions will dictate capacity when they do, according to Donna Harrison, a local employment services manager with Career Edge.

WATCH | Samantha Parsons discusses the need for affordable housing:

Samantha Parsons, owner of Parsons Brewing Company, explains what she’s done to help staff find housing in Prince Edward County. 0:53

“To give a start date is just not doable right now,” she said. “I think most [employers] don’t want to offer work they can’t follow through on.”  

Harrison says the start-and-stop nature of the service industry throughout the pandemic has also led to a decline in people reaching out to Career Edge for help finding work. 

“If all of a sudden things open up … that’s going to be hard,” she said. “Everyone’s going to be looking for people probably at the same time and there’s already a shortage.”

Restaurant owner Sarah Zomer has already lost some staff to lower paying, but consistent jobs in grocery stores and manufacturing because of the pandemic.

sarah zomer owner of flame smith restaurant
Sarah Zomer, owner of restaurant Flame and Smith, says finding seasonal staff has always been an issue, but the pandemic has made it worse. (CBC)

“It’s really difficult right now,” she said. “It’s not really a great offer [to say] ‘We may or may not be open,and we’d love to have you, but we don’t know when, and we don’t know how many hours.'”

Housing employees has also been a hurdle.

Over the course of the three years since she opened Flame and Smith with her husband they’ve had six or seven staff members stay in the couple’s coach house, which is set up as a bachelor apartment, as they tried to find other housing.

B.C. ski town oversees 6,600 affordable housing beds 

Dowdall has looked to other tourist communities from B.C. to Nova Scotia that’ve grappled with affordable housing problems to avoid reinventing the wheel. 

“Whistler, is the one that really catches my eye,” he said.

The B.C. ski resort town has invested in affordable housing for nearly 30 years. Now the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) oversees 6,600 affordable housing beds across more than 2,100 units for local employees. 

whistler housing
Whistler Housing Authority has added 275 new beds to its affordable housing inventory for the ski town’s workforce through four new developments in the last four years. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

That deep well of affordable housing means Whistler is able to house almost 80 per cent of its workforce within its boundaries.

“One of the biggest benefits for people that are accessing the housing is just that stability and security,” said Marla Zucht, general manager of WHA. “To know then that they can continue to live in the community where they’re working, put roots down, maybe grow a family.”

In the short term, Dowdall is drawing inspiration from Whistler when it comes to projects that can be completed quickly. 

“For their seasonal workers they are big on developing the modular and the Quonset housing,” said Dowdell. 

Quonset housing potential short-term solution

The prefabricated, dome-like steel structures can be used for communal living with private rooms. 

Dowdall is talking with a handful of local landowners about building quonset housing on the surplus land they’ve offered up to create fast-tracked affordable housing.

“We need to address this now,” said Dowdall. “This type of housing could be facilitated fairly quickly within three to four months [for] manufacturing.” 

flame smith restaurant prince edward county
Zomer opened her restaurant in Prince Edward County with her husband three years ago. At times, staff have stayed in the couple’s coach house. (CBC)

Parsons and Zomer are still waiting to see what a second summer of pandemic restrictions might  look like before finalizing their staffing needs.

Last summer, both businesses had to adjust their levels of service because of staffing shortages.

“We’ll still be able to open,” said Zomer. “The question is just how many days a week will we be open and what are the hours that we’ll be able to open for?”

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