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Editorial

Of employee housing and sustainability

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Councillor Ted Milner, a past chair of the Whistler Housing Authority during a period when the WHA built a substantial amount of employee housing, feels he was a little hard done by in last week’s column.

I quoted Milner as saying "It’s not up to the municipality to create subsidized housing."

What Milner says he meant was, now that the employee housing fund is just about exhausted, the municipality shouldn’t use taxpayers’ money to create more employee housing, because that, in effect, would be subsidizing businesses. Tax revenue should be used for municipal services, not for building employee housing.

Milner went on to say that the issue is one of sustainability; if we’re going to have a limit on development we have to have a limit on the number of employees in Whistler. "I’m looking forward to the sustainability study, so we can look at how big we should be," he said.

At some point, he suggested, there should be a marginal cost, where employers have to consider whether to hire one more employee or to use the employees they have more efficiently.

These are all good points to consider in the context of sustainability. But figuring out exactly what sustainability means is no easy task.

There is a fear among some that if the pool of employee housing continues to grow it will continue to attract more businesses to Whistler, and in turn those businesses will need more employees. The cycle would continue to spiral upwards and any notion of limiting growth and development would be left behind.

That’s the theory, but the facts presented by the chamber of commerce survey show a need for more affordable employee housing now. These aren’t new businesses that have decided to set up shop in Whistler in the middle of an economic downturn, these are established Whistler businesses. Many of them have had to make hiring decisions based on whether job applicants have secured accommodation or not. That’s not a sound basis for making that type of decision; it’s not good for the business and it may not be good for the resort, particularly if the business is tourist-oriented. But it is reality.

Milner and everyone else at municipal hall recognizes that there will need to be more employee housing built, as gentrification of older neighbourhoods erodes the supply of suites and affordable rental options. That’s where the land bank legacy of the Olympic bid comes in. How much employee housing will be needed is the question. That’s one of the issues the sustainability plan is supposed to address. The answer will influence which of the land bank options is chosen.

The land bank will also be the site of the athletes village if the 2010 Games are awarded to Vancouver-Whistler, but some employee housing could be built and available prior to 2010.

This is all good, long-term planning for sustainability, but the message from the chamber businesses to council on March 4 should not be overlooked: 77 businesses said they needed 343 bedrooms for 686 employees this winter. To ignore those numbers is to act in an unsustainable manner.

And again, the chamber businesses were not asking the municipality to build employee housing for them. The intent of the survey was to show demand for a particular type of employee housing, in which a private developer built and owned the housing and businesses guaranteed the leases.

The "subsidy" that would sustain such a project is the market housing that the developer would build – with existing bed units – as part of the same project.

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