On average, couples and families living in Whistler are slightly better off than they were a few years ago, according to the latest report compiled by the Whistler Centre for Sustainability (WSC) for the municipality's Whistler 2020 Monitoring Program. Cost-of-living has decreased across the board.
The report was presented to Whistler Council recently and included data on Whistler's five priorities for success, including everything from reducing energy consumption to enhancing the visitor experience. Some of the priorities and measurements are concerned with quality of life issues for residents, as well as resident affordability.
Dan Wilson, a sustainability planner for the WCS, noted that the situation is improving on the affordability front for families, looking at the amount of money a sample family would need to spend to live in Whistler.
"As far as resident affordability goes, essentially the cost of living in Whistler at the high scale has improved over the years and is closer to where it was in 2007," he said.
According to statistics compiled by WCS, roughly 25 per cent of permanent residents had incomes or combined incomes that were below the cost of living — the lowest amount since 2007, and down eight percentage points compared to 2010 and six percentage points from 2008. Couples with no kids have also benefited, with the number not meeting the cost of living decreasing from 45 per cent to 25 per cent from 2010 to 2011.
One of the main reasons for the reduced cost of living, said Wilson, is lower accommodation costs — the result of lower-priced rentals and a smaller overall workforce. The run-up to the 2010 Games also hiked rental rates higher than normal.
More locals also own homes as a result of new employee-restricted housing at Cheakamus Crossing, Rainbow and elsewhere. Meanwhile, mortgage rates are at historic lows and owners are able to rent rooms and homes in their places for less money.
"(The cost of living) is primarily driven by the reduction — in recent years anyway — of housing costs," Wilson explained. "When we build our basket of goods, housing is always the biggest item on the list and it's come down quite a bit." While the numbers specifically look at rent costs, mortgage rates are also at historic lows.
But while more families and couples were earning combined incomes that matched or exceed cost-of-living numbers, individuals are continuing to fall short in greater numbers. "That's the household type that has the biggest challenge with affordability," confirmed Wilson.
The number of one-person households where incomes don't meet costs actually increased two per cent from 2010 to 2011 to 35 per cent. That group was more likely to live in market rental housing as well, and while their housing costs also dropped, Wilson said their overall costs did not. "It was interesting that we had some improvement in most household types in affordability, but as far as people being able to get the basket of goods improved for most households, for one-person owners it stayed about the same. So there are still some challenges there."
To put it into perspective, a one person home needed to generate $29,000 in 2008, 2009 and 2010 to afford the cost-of living basket of goods, and only $27,000 in 2011 — yet more people were falling short in meeting that amount, even though their costs were lower.
According to WCS, the cost of a basket of goods for a family of four (with two school-aged kids) is roughly $60,500. Before taxes, Employment Insurance and CPP contributions, a family needs to earn roughly $72,000 per year.
The median personal income range, according to the community survey, is between $40,000 to less than $45,000, while the median household family income range is $100,000 to less than $105,000. Overall median income (individuals and families) is $67,500.
As well, WCS puts together a basket of goods for seasonal workers and determined that they would need to make an income of $11,200 over the winter months, or $12.75 an hour over a 40 hour work week, to keep up with their cost of living. It's been said that $1 for every hour they work will go towards the cost of their ski pass, although workers in this income group were also more likely to benefit from other forms of compensation like free ski passes, subsidized accommodation, food discounts and other perks.
Although a greater percentage of families are keeping up with the cost of living, a large number of people are still paying more for housing than is recommended. The general guideline from economic advisors is that you should never spend more than 30 per cent or one-third of your income on housing, but according to the 2012 Community Life Survey published in July roughly 43 per cent of residents are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on accommodation. That's almost double the 22 per cent reported in 2006.
Additionally, more than one in five families and individuals are paying more than 40 per cent of income on housing, which is a cause for concern.
Meanwhile, a national study from 2006 (using a standard, less generous basket of goods than WCS) found that just 10 per cent of Canadians had incomes below basic living costs for their areas. Using this same approach, the number of Whistler permanent residents living below the cost of living mark is about 20 per cent for both 2010 and 2011. That's about double the national average, and up from 12 per cent in 2006.
The Whistler 2020 basket of goods is similar to other cost-of-living measures and takes into account the cost of things like accommodation, groceries and transportation, while also taking into account costs that are unique to Whistler such as ski passes and bikes. The WCS updates its "basket of goods" for Whistler residents every year.
To keep Whistler affordable for residents, Wilson said that wages are as important as keeping the basket of goods affordable.
"That's not to pit wage earners against business owners, because they also need money to survive and some business owners aren't making the compensation needed for their family either," said Wilson. "The question is how can we keep the cost-of-living down in Whistler for the most vulnerable, and how can we ensure the economy is delivering the best it can for the people living here."
To that end, Wilson said the best way to keep the cost of living in check is for the community to work in collaborative ways. "It's better to enlarge the pie, as opposed to fighting over the pieces," he said.
The WCS is not making specific recommendations on how to improve results, hoping that stakeholders, experts and citizens in the community can work together on solutions. Wilson pointed to groups like the Whistler Housing Authority and Whistler Community Services Society that provide a service to the community while reviewing numbers provided through the monitoring program. The municipality also has the EPI group that is looking at ways to strengthen and diversify the local economy.
The goal is also to get the public to comment, said Wilson, and the website, www.whistler2020.ca, does have links where people can comment on Whistler's progress and make suggestions.
"People can go (to the website) and under each measure there's a question, 'how do you think Whistler is doing — how can we do better,'" said Wilson.
"We wanted to ensure there was an opportunity for the folks that read the indicators to actually go in and make comments on it, which we refer to those partner organizations that are the experts. By sharing our insights with their insights, we can use that to create better strategies to improve Whistler's progress towards our goal of being a premier mountain resort community moving towards sustainability."