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Banff YWCA opens new affordable housing project

“The individuals often that we are housing in our affordable housing units are living and working in the tourism and hospitality industry, so we want to make sure that we take care of our people.”

BANFF – Banff residents facing barriers in finding suitable accommodation now have a new place to call home with the opening of the YWCA’s long-awaited $14.1 million housing development.

Two years after breaking ground, the new Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place adds 33 units to the Y’s affordable housing program in a town that continues to grapple with a housing crisis. Previously referred to as the Courtyard Project, the new building named for Banff’s first female doctor can house up to 78 people.

Officials say some residents began moving in over the past month and more will do so in the coming week, in what is for some, the very first place they can call their own.

“It’s just a really nice feeling for us to watch these residents move in,” said Ebony Rempel, chief executive officer of Banff YWCA.

“We’re so excited it’s happening because there’s been so many delays in the construction due to many factors, including COVID, price escalations, inflation, supply chain issues, etc.”

The YWCA has been a leading provider of affordable housing in the Banff community for more than 25 years.

The organization has typically had accommodation for about 100 residents, while at the same time delivering programs and services that help make the Banff community a safer and healthier place to live.

Criteria for potential residents include women, new and extended families, and individuals with accessibility needs.

Priority also goes to lower-income earners who struggle to find appropriate and affordable housing.

Rental rates are approximately 20 per cent below market rates, a benchmark the YWCA is proud of.

“I know Banff is experiencing a housing crisis, but I think all of Canada is experiencing a housing crisis,” said Rempel.

“The individuals often that we are housing in our affordable housing units are living and working in the tourism and hospitality industry, so we want to make sure that we take care of our people.”

The three-storey, 33-unit residential development was built with an ambitious target of net-zero energy efficiency.

Constructed from modified shipping containers, the units range from studio to four-bedroom apartments. Each self-contained unit includes a washroom, kitchen and living space, and five units are fully-accessible.

By investing in a design that boosts energy efficiency, a goal is to maintain affordability for residents over the long term by way of lower utility costs.

“Not only does it support our mandate and the community’s mandate around sustainability, but there’s also the affordability factor,” said Rempel.

“That will get put back into those living in the space because their utility bills and their energy bills won’t be as high.”

The YWCA provided the land for the project and leveraged provincial and federal government funding contributions, as well as loans, to raise the capital dollars needed.

The costs ballooned throughout the project to almost $14 million, particularly given the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s no news to anybody that the construction industry was certainly one of the industries that was not doing well during the pandemic,” said Rempel.

“We had lots of challenges and hiccups along the way, but I can say with confidence, that the end result is a beautiful, beautiful space.”

The new building is named for Dr. Priscilla Wilson (1929-2018), who was the first female doctor in town, University of Calgary Senator, Medical Officer of Health and AIDS activist.

In 2016, Wilson was a recipient of a YWCA Women of Distinction award, nominated by peers in recognition of her significant contributions to the fabric of the Bow Valley community.

A grand opening for Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place had been planned for Sept. 15, but Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Sept. 8 and the subsequent 10-day mourning period cancelled the event.

Rempel said there are plans to reschedule for later this year.

“We really want to be able to celebrate the success of this project,” she said.