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Empty offices offer solution to housing crisis: Vernon chamber

With people still working from home post pandemic, city urged to support creating homes in vacant spaces
An empty building on Anderson Way in Vernon, Dec. 2, 2022. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

With fewer people working in downtown centres, there are more empty workplaces, which Vernon is being urged to turn into housing.

The Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce says there are challenges as well as opportunities that come from changes to where and how people work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a new study from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, while the number of people returning to in-person workplaces is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels nationally, the mobility change for Vernon has decreased 13.3 per cent since January 2020.

“Many employees headed home as the pandemic began and they continue to work from there. Not only has that meant empty offices, but it has led to reduced foot traffic in areas such as downtown, impacting restaurants and shops that used to attract those office workers,” said Dan Proulx, Vernon Chamber general manager.

Communities with higher rates of professional workers, university educated workers, commuting options and women are seeing less mobility to workplaces, according to the study.

“Employers have continued to be accommodating following the pandemic so working from home may be permanent in some cases, and that means alternatives are needed for vacated spaces that benefit the community,” said Proulx.

Vernon’s Official Community Plan is up for review, and the chamber says one option is for the city to encourage developers to pursue residential conversion of some properties that are being under-utilized downtown.

“Vernon, like many communities, is experiencing a housing crunch and affordability is increasingly an issue for families and employers, who cannot attract workers. With many offices sitting empty, there could be an opportunity to transform them into studio suites or apartments,” said Proulx.

“Obviously there would be some hurdles to overcome such as parking, but housing could increase vitality downtown, creating a consumer base for restaurants and shops and reducing safety and security concerns. Housing would also assist employers in trying to retain staff.”

The chamber is asking the city to be flexible with its development rules, including the policy that currently only permits residential uses if there is a commercial use on the ground floor.

“The trend for remote work is likely going to continue and if we have learned anything through the pandemic, it’s that adaptation is necessary to survive. We are calling on the City of Vernon and private investors to embrace a vision that creates growth and energy throughout the community and economy,” said Proulx.

The full Canadian Chamber of Commerce workplace mobility report can be read here.

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Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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