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Housing survey shows challenges for Bowen businesses and employees

Results showed a lack of available employee housing has made operating a business tougher than 15 years ago
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A recent survey of the worker housing situation on Bowen painted a difficult reality of the search.

The Community Economic Development Committee (CEDC) canvassed business owners in June and July on several staff housing related questions, including whether both their seasonal and year-round staff had found places to live, what kind of solutions they envisioned for the issue, and what impacts the housing situation was having on themselves and their employees.

The answers were particularly alarming for seasonal workers. When the survey closed in early July, there were still more than 60 staff looking for a place to live. With responses from 56 of the island’s 605 licenced business owners, it’s likely the actual number of workers looking for a home is even higher.

“I was surprised that so many people didn’t have housing lined up for seasonal staff – that that was an issue in mid-summer,” said Coun. Sue Ellen Fast during a presentation of the results during the July 25 council meeting. Two-thirds of businesses had two or more summer staff still looking for a place.

The municipal business licence office estimates there are around 520 full-time employees on Bowen, not counting business owners. Seasonal workers add about another 310 people to the island’s workforce – and housing search.

The largest number of responses came from the commercial (retail, food and beverage) and contracting sectors. This provided some variety as far as what type of accommodations would be suitable. For example, contractor responses showed their employees were more comfortable with a tiny home than workers in other sectors.

“Our staff would need to stay in tiny homes that they can bring with them and then depart with at the end of their contract,” read one written response.

Over half of commercial and contracting owners said temporary use permits (TUP) for RVs or trailers would help their seasonal staffing needs, and 70 per cent of all owners expressed interest in the TUP model. The municipality will be exploring whether a TUP seasonal worker housing project is feasible on Bowen in advance of the 2023 summer season.

Other popular solutions included a collaborative effort between business owners, “to address staff housing needs through projects such as a dormitory, tiny home site, or purpose-built staff housing,” or a matchmaking service “to connect homeowners with available accommodation and business owners who need staff housing.”

Lack of worker housing hurts more than just financials

The worker housing issue is affecting all aspects of businesses too, physically, emotionally and financially. Two-thirds of owners say it hurts their ability to both hire and retain staff, while more than half of answers showed both owners and their staff are experiencing burnout as a result.

Half of businesses say the problem has impacted their hours, one-third said it means they’re open less days of the week, and nearly half say the lack of housing options have impeded their business growth.

One response commented on the “Owner and employee stress. Not knowing if your valuable employees can stay or will have to leave the island.” Another noted the “Changing ferry schedule for shift work. Very hard to manage the changes, delays, etc. Exhausting over the summer for off-island staff.”

Almost half of responses said increased travel costs for employees who have to commute impact their business – this number was 91 per cent for responses in the contracting industry.

The information gathered showed several of these issues have actually gotten worse over time. A 2007 Affordable Needs Housing Assessment showed 39 per cent of businesses were having trouble hiring, and 29 per cent said lack of affordable housing was affecting their growth. Those numbers are significantly higher today, at 68 and 46 per cent respectively.

“If you look at the report from 2007 and you look at what people are saying now, the ability to hire and retain staff appears much worse currently,” said Coun. Maureen Nicholson.

A common response to how owners were helping staff look for housing was word of mouth. This method often boils down to luck or existing connections though, and isn’t overly reliable as a housing search strategy.

“Just reading some of those comments, it’s amazing how much of it’s just word of mouth. And how by the time housing becomes available to somebody, it’s gone. It has to be done before that,” said mayor Gary Ander.

Many responses also indicated the business has either given up looking for workers, or will only hire people already living on Bowen.

“We either provide it ourselves (seasonally) or limit our hiring to those who already have housing on the island. This makes it very difficult to grow the business and to add services that would draw more people during the slower winter months,” read one comment.

Nicholson acknowledged the limitations of the survey, specifically that it only sought answers from business owners and not employees or the general public. It also doesn’t address the underlying issue of housing affordability.

But council agreed the information obtained was still valuable, and forwarded the survey results to the Housing Advisory Committee for further analysis.

Full results of the survey can be found on the municipal website

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