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Affordable housing still hot topic

Seasonal workers hanging in means waitlist remains in place



By Vivian Moreau

For the first time in its 15-year history as an accommodation provider ski operator Whistler-Blackcomb has a mid-March waitlist of employees still hoping to move into the company’s subsidized housing.

Whistler-Blackcomb provides approximately 1,200 beds for its employees, in several private homes in the valley as well as eight dormitory-style buildings on Glacier Way. Beds that rent for between $280 and $490 per month were snapped up this winter prompting a December waitlist of 150. But the accommodation crunch that usually abates by mid-January isn’t happening, says Whistler-Blackcomb’s housing supervisor, noting there are still about 45 employees hoping to find space in company housing.

“I’ve been chewing my nails, going ‘huh?’” said Brian Goode.

Normally beds become available by late-January as Australian workers head back to their February start of terms at Down Under universities. Goode said that not only is that not happening this season, but the company’s university-style dormitory accommodations have become increasingly popular. As well, consistent work and excellent snow conditions may be keeping staff in place, Goode said, and he wonders if they intend to stay through summer, when company accommodation drops to $7.65 a night.

“People are starting to go ‘We hear summer is pretty good here, let’s stay for the year instead of six months,” he said.

Seasonal workers that hang around all year could further exacerbate a shortage of affordable housing, a situation 43 per cent of local businesses say they’re not happy about. At a March 5 council meeting Whistler Housing Authority presented its annual study that showed a large segment of Whistler’s business community are not satisfied with the quantity of housing for seasonal workers, a finding Whistler’s mayor protested.

“I wonder if they assume it’s our job to provide housing for employees?” Ken Melamed asked. “Do they expect us to take money out of their property taxes (to do so)? There seems to be a disconnect here.”

Business owner George McConkey said trouble finding enough beds for seasonal workers is not new.

“It’s been an ongoing problem since the day I got here in 1979,” McConkey said. The owner of two village ski shops, McConkey says the resort has grown to the point where it needs to loosen up developer restrictions so that affordable housing can be built, adding that the municipality needs to provide incentives to developers to construct housing for seasonal workers.

Westin Resort and Spa general manager Trevor Graham says there’s got to be a way to solving the dilemma.

“(Finding a solution) needs to be a collective effort,” Graham said. “Being the new guy in town I just don’t get a sense that it is happening in the way it is supposed to happen.”

Graham said there needs to be detailed understanding of how many beds are needed and for what sector.

“Does retail need 500 beds? Do restaurants need 300, does the hotel community need 1,000?” he asked, adding he wants to understand as a hotelier what his responsibility should be.

“Whether it’s money that I have to put up in my hotel or whether it’s money that I’ve got to support the municipality with, then let’s at least have a collective solution. Let’s all understand the win, win for everyone. We always seem to look at the loss, loss for everybody and nobody wants to ante up.”

Grocery Store co-owner Sue Adams also provides affordable housing for employees and says they couldn’t operate effectively if they didn’t.

“Seasonal workers are critical to the success of our resort and if they don’t have a proper place to live then how can they carry out the level of customer service and guest experience that we say we want in our resort?”

Two months ago community leaders banded together to find long-term housing solutions for seasonal workers. A spin-off from a successful project last fall that found inexpensive temporary accommodation for workers as they job-hunted in Whistler, the project, now under the Chamber of Commerce’s auspices, is brainstorming to come up with answers to what some say is Whistler’s perennial bugaboo.

Four Seasons’ general manager says it would be good if more businesses could convince absentee home owners to rent out their vacant homes such as Whistler-Blackcomb has been able to do. Scott Taber said although the hotel has its own onsite housing and subsidized off-site housing as well for employees, he would prefer it if there was a streamlined effort within the resort to secure accommodation for seasonal workers.

“As a community we need to make it beneficial for them to rent out their homes,” Taber said, adding that there needs to be a plan to alleviate home owners’ fears about security or trouble that could accompany opening up to seasonal workers homes that sit empty much of the year. “It’s a very serious problem for us as a community to provide good housing for employees coming from across Canada and from around the world.”

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