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employee housing

A matter of timing All of a sudden housing in Whistler is no longer a lottery By Bob Barnett Four years ago this month, in preparing for its "worst housing crisis ever," Whistler was looking at the possibility of a temporary trailer park to house some staff over the winter. In March of 1996 a lottery for the right to purchase one of the 85 new employee housing units for sale in Millar’s Pond drew a staggering 714 applications. And about this time three years ago, as candidates for council started to emerge, one of the questions everyone was asking was how should the employee housing fund — which would top $6 million by year end — be spent. So, as Whistler begins to gear up for another winter season, on the heels of the record-breaking 1998-99 winter, what are the housing prospects for the last winter of the millennium? In two words, pretty good. For years employee housing, or the oxymoronic "affordable housing," was the weather issue in Whistler — everyone talked about it but no one did anything about it. Every fall there would be stories in the local and Lower Mainland press about people renting space in saunas, camping out in Volkswagen vans or living with three roommates in a two-bedroom suite. The Whistler Valley Housing Society and council of the day would dutifully respond that it was too late to do anything for the winter ahead but by next year, by God, things would be different. And then employee housing would disappear from the radar screen for another 10 months, resurfacing about the time everyone realized Whistler had gone through another record summer of construction and there were going to be even more businesses, and more employees to house, in the winter ahead. But today things are different. In fact, the Whistler Housing Authority, with hard data in hand to back up its arguments, feels confident there will be adequate housing for those employees who choose to live in Whistler this winter. "There’s always a frenzy for housing in November, but the numbers from last winter show the real demand is being met," said Tim Wake of the WHA. "All of a sudden (employee housing) seems to be back in balance." That statement, which seems remarkable given the employee housing situation three or four years ago, is based on results of surveys the WHA has done with employers the past two summers and the housing projects which are under construction or in the development process. The surveys have provided some empirical evidence to support the direction the housing authority is taking. The surveys have found there were between 11,000 and 12,000 employees during the peak period last winter. They also showed that few employers did not achieve full staffing levels, and of those that had trouble filling positions only about half said it was because of housing. "We’re feeling like we’re in the ball park," Wake said, but he cautioned that Whistler needs to keep building employee housing because the resort is still in a growth phase. While the demand for housing this winter is apparently being met, the WHA has also put numbers together to determine how much employee housing Whistler should need at buildout. The formula shows Whistler will employ about 15,000 people at buildout. About 80 per cent of those 15,000 will choose to live in Whistler, so about 12,000 beds are required for employees. Rick Staehli, general manager of the WHA, says the majority of rental units in Whistler are and should continue to be provided through private rental agreements. The WHA’s role is to provide or control, through projects with restrictive covenants, about one-third of that 12,000 total, or about 4,000 beds. Right now there are between 2,500 and 3,000 beds with employee covenants on them, so the WHA is on track to meet its goal of 4,000 beds by buildout. This formula in itself, supported by real data, is a far cry from previous approaches to employee housing, some of which seem to have been based on myth or panic. Four years ago there was talk of the trailer camp. Three years ago there was a call for housing proposals, which was responded to by nearly every landowner without development rights. Meanwhile, some argued that the need for employee housing would evaporate when the major developments were completed and construction workers left town. But whenever a housing project was built, there was a lottery to determine who got into the project. The lottery aspect of housing was particularly galling, because for some it meant their decision to stay in Whistler or build a life in another town came down to a random draw. Even the new high school had trouble attracting teachers because most couldn’t afford to buy homes at market prices and they couldn’t make a commitment to Whistler subject to winning the housing lottery. So what led to this turnaround? Staehli credits the present Whistler council. "Economic cycles dictate a lot, but during the last election everyone said housing was the number one issue, and it probably was," Staehli says. "An economic high preceded that election, which led to another housing crunch," Staehli continues. "It was a major decision to create an agency — the housing authority — to deal with the issue." The WHA was founded in October of 1997 on the recommendation of the CityScapes consulting firm. But the agency itself wasn’t the whole solution. "The other major issue was council followed through and took a stand," Staehli says. That stand came with the 19 Mile Creek housing project, a private development at the entrance to Alpine Meadows that was the subject of a bitter and confrontational debate, culminating in a divisive public hearing in March of 1998. Many Alpine Meadows residents felt, and probably continue to feel, the project was rammed down their throats. But Staehli says the density was reduced and the project whittled down to very near the breaking point; if there had been any further reductions in the scope of the project the developer would have abandoned it. Councillors took a stand on the 19 Mile Creek project for a number of reasons, not the least of which was because they and the WHA made a commitment to try and integrate employee housing in every neighbourhood in Whistler. This approach, as opposed to designating a single area for all employee housing far from existing neighbourhoods, Staehli feels will pay dividends for the whole community in the long run. "Council has to be commended for taking a stand, for breaking the back of NIMBYism," Staehli says. "The authority and the mandate was there to do something, and they did it." Staehli says previous councils had come off economic cycles knowing there was a housing problem and knowing the solution, "but they didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to follow through, and I don’t blame them. This was a small town then and there were conflicting interests. "But last election, the town was bigger, there were lots of resident voters who wanted to get something done." In other words, timing has been a key factor in turning around the employee housing situation. In addition to a mandate from voters to address the employee housing issue, this council had something no previous council had: a substantial employee housing fund, fed by works and services charges levied against commercial developments. The works and services charges for housing were introduced in 1986. By 1996 the fund totalled more than $6 million and many people were asking why the money wasn’t being spent to create housing. Others were asking why developers had been let off so easily, paying cash in lieu of actually developing employee housing. "It’s turned out that it was not a bad thing that the fund was created (rather than forcing developers to build housing)," Wake says. The WHA has used the fund to purchase land, such as the Beaver Flats at Creekside and the Lorimer road site next to Tapley’s Farm, where employee housing is being built or will be built. With the land secured the WHA can obtain financing to build long-term rental units on the sites, a type of employee housing private developers are not interested in building. But in addition to the rental projects that the WHA is building, the private sector has, in the last couple of years, taken an interest in building for-sale employee housing projects. That interest has been sparked by the cap on commercial development — another timing issue. "The cap on development has worked for employee housing," Wake says. "Developers coming in late in the game have found we’re the only game in town." Indeed, Staehli suggests if the WHA had been started in 1995, during the height of development in Village North, it would have been competing with other developers and the cost of building housing might have been higher. But if the housing situation is looking relatively rosy today, is there a need for the WHA in the future? The answer is yes, but the housing authority’s role will change from facilitating development to managing the inventory of employee housing. Last January the WHA board approved a business plan which, among other things, established a long-term, self-sustaining financial plan for the organization. The business plan also has a built-in series of checks and balances to help determine where the WHA is going and how it will get there. The plan will be reviewed annually and has the flexibility to respond to changes in economic cycles and the needs of the community. The board of directors of the WHA will also likely change. As the housing fund is depleted over the next three-four years there will probably be more community members and fewer councillors on the board. Among the needs Staehli can see in the future is "social housing." It’s a term he realizes makes some people see red, but he’s not advocating turning entire developments over to welfare recipients. Rather, as Whistler matures there will be people with special needs — disabled residents or people with long-term illnesses, perhaps seniors — who have been part of the community and want to continue to live here but need financial assistance. As the WHA pays down its mortgages and builds equity in the buildings it owns it can re-finance the projects and subsidize the rent on one or two units for people in need. Staehli can see the WHA taking on this role in the future because senior levels of government are continuing to download housing responsibilities on municipalities. But he probably won’t be around when that time comes. Staehli made it clear to the board of the WHA when he accepted the general manager’s job in January of 1998 that he would stay with the organization through its building phase. He figures he’s probably half-way through his term as GM. "I think we should be relatively happy with what we’ve accomplished, but not overly happy," Staehli says. "We’ve come a long way in implementing the community’s wishes. We don’t get as much criticism as we did in the first six months we were around." Future projects for the WHA include 53 one- and two-bedroom rental apartments in two buildings behind Nesters Road; 54 studio and one-bedroom rental apartments at 2025 Karen Crescent (the Beaver Flats development) as well as five duplex lots on the lower part of that site; the WHA will likely develop one of the two employee housing sites at Intrawest’s Spring Creek subdivision (Intrawest will develop the other). Meanwhile, the Lorimer Road project will be ready for occupation by Nov. 1 — rental agreements are currently being finalized with people on the WHA’s wait list — and various phases of the 19 Mile Creek project will become available for occupancy throughout the winter. Future challenges facing the WHA include trying to get a sense of how many private rental units may be removed from the inventory through redevelopment of older houses. "Private landlords have thought we’re competing with them, but I don’t think we are," Staehli says. "Where we have had an impact is in giving people value for their rent. "But the majority of rentals in Whistler will always be private." With housing lotteries now a thing of the past and some level of assurance both rental and for-sale employee housing will continue to be available, other towns are now looking to Whistler’s example for solutions to their own housing crises. "We’ve talked to a lot of towns and I think we’re as far along, or farther, than most," Staehli says. "I think these councillors have to be commended for what they’ve done. If people want to make (employee housing) an election issue, fine. They campaigned on a promise and followed through."