Michelle Forster and her family of four spent their first eight years in Whistler living in a series of rental homes.
Eventually they were given the opportunity to buy a three-bedroom, employee-restricted townhouse in Cheakamus Crossing. Managed by the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), it made a great first starter home. But eventually, the family wanted something different.
"It was never our intention to buy into (WHA) and stay in it. It was a great opportunity, but I felt it was time for us to move on," she says.
So Forster began looking for market housing options — which would allow her family to build equity and have a bigger home.
Eventually, the Forsters found something within their price range, landing on a house in Alpine. At $970,000, it was expensive, but it had a huge lot — 1,858 square metres in total. Their plan — which they figured would be made possible by an infill housing pilot project that covered the area — was to subdivide the lot and sell the home that stood on it, an older A-frame cabin, to the WHA. They would in turn build a new home on the newly created lot.
After making the purchase, Forster got to work, hiring engineers and studying the complicated bylaws. In the process, she met with city planners, who encouraged her application.
"All of them said, 'Great idea, we've never even thought of this. This totally fits our infill housing zoning,'" recalls Forster.
That was until someone noticed a minor issue. Under the rules, their lot was actually slightly too large to qualify, and to go forward, council would have to grant them a variance, which meant that the public would be invited to comment on their application.
Watching the council meeting was "like watching a trainwreck," she recalls.
A number of neighbours turned up and voiced their opposition. "The bottom line of it is they didn't want this in their backyard, and they weren't concerning themselves with community housing strategies or anything like that."
Despite municipal planners giving the application their seal of approval, council voted, five to one, to deny the variance at a March 15, 2016 meeting. To cap it off, the municipality placed a temporary moratorium on the pilot project that would have allowed it.
The experience, says Forster, was "crushing."
"We knew we didn't have the time or the money to fight it," says Forster, who estimates the couple spent some $15,000 on the application.
"A lot of people would buy that and bulldoze their 5,000 sq. foot home," she says. "That was not our intention."
MORE HOUSING IN NEIGHBOURHOODS, SAY EXPERTS
With communities across North America struggling with affordable housing, more attention is being focused on innovative, outside-the-box approaches. Recognizing the controversy that surrounds placing large apartment buildings in residential neighbourhoods, housing advocates and planners are calling on municipal leaders to encourage the kind of low-impact density the Forsters were trying to facilitate.
According to Kol Peterson, author of Backdoor Revolution: The Definitive Guide to ADU Development, Portland is one of only a few U.S. cities that has taken a progressive approach to what is broadly known as auxiliary housing, or accessory dwelling units (ADU).
In 2010, the city — known for its progressive vibe, good coffee, and food trucks — waved a $10,000 "residential impact fee," meaning that it now costs between $1,500 to $15,000 to get permission to add a suite to your home or build a standalone home on your property. The move resulted in a dramatic increase in applications, according to Peterson.
But when it comes to true leaders in the movement to make residential neighbourhoods denser, Peterson says Vancouver is head and shoulders above the rest. "Vancouver is the leader of ADU development in North America. They have more ADUs then anybody else," he explains, attributing it to the city's "flexible regulation."
Unlike other jurisdictions, Vancouver doesn't require an owner to live in one of the two homes; has liberal rules when it comes to parking requirements; and allows two auxiliary units per home. The city now permits some 500 auxiliary units a year — although there have been complaints about long wait times.
Bryn Davidson, owner of Lanefab, a Vancouver-based construction company that specializes in high-end laneway homes, says the city's embrace of auxiliary housing has filled an important role.
"It's really important (for cities) to create a new type of home that will give people an option, because no one can afford to buy a full-sized property anymore," says Davidson.
Vancouver started allowing laneway homes for the first time in 2010, explains Davidson. At first, there was plenty of outcry from neighbours, with people worried about neighbourhood composition. But after six months, "those complaints dropped off," says Davidson. "There's not a real reason to be against it — it's just that it's different."
Overall, Vancouver's leaders did a good of articulating why auxiliary housing is important, says Davidson.
"Your staff or your politicians have to be willing to just push through that first year or two, and then people realize it's not the end of the world, and it could give them good options," he explains.
In response to Whistler's housing problems, in 2016, Whistler's mayor, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, launched a task force into residential housing. The group's final report, released in December, identifies a growing gulf between market and WHA housing and reveals a strong demand for innovative solutions.
According to a community survey, which received over 2,000 responses, Whistler is overwhelmingly behind the idea of denser neighbourhods: 90 per cent support detached dwellings, 87 per cent want to allow subdivision of a lot, and 89 per cent want to allow duplexes.
Another 82 per cent indicated they would be OK with more than one suite in single-family housing. (According to the muni, Whistler currently has 1,070 homes with suites.)
The task force made a number of recommendations, including "new and expanded infill programs for homeowners to add a new resident-restricted dwelling to their existing property."
Staff is currently developing rules and regulations, but according to both Peterson and Davidson, Whistler must avoid the so-called "poison pills" that discourage homeowners from adding density. These include restrictive parking requirements, a requirement that an owner live in either the home or the suite, and a requirement that opens up projects to public consultation.
Peterson encourages a free-market approach: "The most important thing they can do is to get out of the way. In the U.S., I'd say 90 or 95 per cent of government have bad or very bad ADU regulations," he says.
At Pique's request, Peterson and Davidson took a look at Whistler's policies. Both came to a similar conclusion: that if Whistler is serious about promoting infill or auxiliary housing, it needs to start by clearly explaining what is and what isn't permitted.
"They haven't done any work to make the bylaws or rules easy to understand or access," says Davidson. "Their communication work is terrible. (You) can't even tell if their rules are good or bad."
Even areas with fairly restrictive polices, like West Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver, do a much better job at communicating their policies, says Davidson.
"As much as I've criticized those cities, they've generally done a good job communicating (their policies)."
Wilhelm-Morden says that there will likely be "increased clarity" when it comes to infill housing regulations once the new rules are completed and released to the public.
"It may be that some of the rules and regulations might have been a little bit complicated," adds Wilhelm-Morden. "With expanding the infill program, new rules and regulations will be drafted, and I think there will be some increased clarity at that point."
Whistler, she notes, has been focused on creating employee-restricted housing through the WHA, which has created almost 2,000 beds, and the WHA is currently building three additional apartments.
"We've been recognized as a leader within our country — if not within North America," she says.
Going forward, the muni plans on following the goals of the task force, which recommends creating 1,000 new beds over the next five years. Of that, it envisions some 300 — or 50 homes — will come from "private infill opportunities."
"There will be more when it comes to infill housing — but we want to be conservative in our estimates," says Wilhelm-Morden.
Reflecting on the Forsters' episode, Wilhelm-Morden says her thinking has evolved since then, citing the findings of the task force as helping change her mind. Like her, she feels that the broader community is ready to accept denser neighbourhoods.
"There's been a broader recognition that this is an issue that concerns everyone," she says.
THE LAST WORD
For her part, Forster says she's happy with the new direction municipal hall is taking.
"I'm pleasantly surprised (Wilhelm-Morden) turned to supporting it, because constantly building Whistler Housing Authority (units) is not the only answer."
Being from Australia, a leader in creating "granny flats," Forster says she's hopeful that a new infill program will lead to more starter homes and give more people the chance to get their foot in the market.
"I think we're looking for this magic answer — but it's almost already here," she says. "It just needs some fine tuning a little bit to make it work."
The original version of this story misstated the size of the Forsters' lot. It initially stated it was 6,096 square metres when it is in fact 1,858 square metres. Pique apologizes for the error.