I was at a meeting this fall where I learned there are 14 homeless people living in the Elk Valley. While it was shocking, it was also believable. Not only has it become more visible, the housing crisis has been in the spotlight in the news, political campaigns, and in discussions around many tables across the province. But as we are all learning, there is no easy or one solution.
We also have been witnessing the North End Court being developed over the last year, an affordable housing project orchestrated by the Fernie Family Housing Society with numerous partnerships, grant applications and donors on board to support the efforts to create additional affordable housing in our community.
Gayle Vallance has been with Fernie Family Housing since its inception. Originally from Michel, Gayle enjoyed the experience of growing up in a small town.
“You knew pretty much everybody - it was supportive and cooperative. Growing up in a small town like that you know the importance of making a contribution. You can’t separate yourself from it,” she tells me.
After graduating, Gayle studied education at UBC and returned to the valley to teach. The Sparwood Highschool was closed at the time, so she taught in Fernie which is where she met her soon-to-be husband, Jimmy. After a few years, the couple moved to Scotland, where Gayle realized she was more comfortable in Canada and, “I just wanted to farm.” Prior to leaving Fernie, Gayle and Jimmy had purchased an acreage on Cokato Road. “It was the big draw for me,” Gayle adds. “We moved back in 1974 and Jimmy started building the house, we built up the live stock and farmed for 45 years.” They sold their last animals just last summer.
The couple raised a family, and Gayle taught on and off but quit teaching in 1981 when her son Andrew was born as he had special needs.
“And that was mainly the reason I got into affordable housing. I was part of the Elk Valley Society for Community Living and got to know the self-advocates – adults with developmental delays. We became aware of how lacking Fernie was for suitable housing for these people. The society called a meeting with the City, the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), and mental health authorities and developed a plan. Our main focus was to support people with disabilities, WRC for women in transition, and through this the Fernie Family Housing Society was formed– in 2000.”
The New Horizons Village was the result of this collaboration, which was completed in 2001.
“Of course, we were looking around for other ventures,” Gayle tells me. “Tom Uphill came up for sale and we negotiated the purchase and redeveloped that into apartments for seniors and people with disabilities.”
Having been involved in housing for nearly 25 years, Gayle has recognized that there has always been a concern about the lack of affordable housing in Fernie but that it has been growing in severity.
“There is more demand, and we get inquiries regularly,” she says. “Our latest project is of course the North End Court. We were lucky when we purchased the Tom Uphill, as it included that acre of land. We’ve been working on it for years, and while we are delayed, we ae really hoping it’s ready for occupation in May of 2023.”
Currently the society is encouraging people to apply, via the BC Housing Registry.
“The goal is to support people with the greatest financial need,” she says. “There are 35 units in the apartment blocks that are low end market rents. The row houses are subsidized rents through BC Housing, to support lower income families.”
So, what are low market rents? Every five years a study is done to see what units are renting for. Those at the lowest end are what Fernie Family Housing can charge for its low-end market rental units, which represent a portion of the units available at New Horizon and North End Court.
While North End Court is still under construction, they are already beginning to plan for their next project.
“Typically, it takes a minimum of three years for these planning phases,” Gayle says. “The renovation of Tom Uphill is next, which is a major project that includes an energy assessment, new roof, new Make Up Air units, window replacements, and hopefully solar panels. You might think it’s a simple process, but it is very complicated.”
Another thing being talked about across the province is volunteer burnout, and it’s something Gayle admits she thinks about all of the time.
“It can be hard to find people who are interested, willing and prepared to do the work. It is challenging being a volunteer with an organization, you have to have thick skin, broad shoulders, and can’t take criticism personally. That’s been my philosophy. If there is a criticism, lay it out and we’ll see if it’s possible. If it’s not, and the individual doesn’t want to do the work, maybe it won’t get done. You have to recognize your limitations because if you get driven into the ground, who is there to take it on?” she says. “We don’t have the culture of volunteering that we used to have. Just look at the service clubs – where are all the members? The Elk Valley Society for Community Living will disappear, because there is no membership. I don’t blame young families – both parents having to work full time now to be able to pay the rent – you can’t expect them to go out to meetings… when they are home they just can’t do it anymore.”
In her opinion, you don’t need talent you just need people who want to do the work. They do have a general manager, but she is hoping to phase out so they are looking for an assistant who would work towards filling the general manager role. Additionally, the society is working on their succession plan as part of their governance, to make it an easier transition for new board members.
While they continue to tackle big projects, and work on the organization internally, they are also keeping their eyes open to possibilities. The biggest being land.
“If we were offered land to lease by the City again, like New Horizons, we would look at that favourably. Of course, it comes down to who is on the board, and who will do the work.”
December is a great time to set an intention to support your community.
If you are interested in learning more about Fernie Family Housing, there are many ways to get involved and support. For example, they are currently looking for someone to build a website. Contact FFHS@telus.net with any questions.
Thank you, Gayle and the Fernie Family Housing team for your work and dedication.
1. When did you first arrive in the Elk Valley and what brought you here?
I was born in Michel in 1943.
2. Who did you first meet/remember knowing?
Members of my family, who were always kind and encouraging.
3. Do you remember your first general impression of the Elk Valley?
The freedom of growing up in a small community.
4. What keeps you here?
Family and friends, and the general attractiveness of the City of Fernie.
5. Do you have a favourite pastime?
Spinning, weaving, felting, dyeing
6. What time of the year do you love most and why?
I love the spring because after a long cold winter, spring offers so much promise.
7. Where do you see or hope to see the Elk Valley in five years?
I would like to see affordable housing available to all citizens of Fernie and the Elk Valley.
8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals?
A 2km walk along Cokato Road, then work in the garden (in spring and summer) or at my fiber arts (fall and winter).
9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you.
I don’t do stress.
10. Quote to live by: Always look forward, never back.