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Fall housing crunch shines light on affordability

Employee housing, homelessness, affordability all on community radar



Municipal council isn't the only one with long-term resident affordability concerns, and all its many facets, on its mind.

Two more community organizations are looking at other aspects of the social fabric of local life impacted in part by the high cost of living in Whistler — namely, housing and homelessness.

Two separate studies — one does not have approval as yet — are aimed at taking a deeper look at these two issues, all with the ultimate goal of getting to the root of some deep-seated issues.

The studies are not linked directly with the new municipal focus on resident affordability, but speak to a renewed community interest on the economic pressures facing certain segments of society.

"I think there were a number of stories this past fall about people having difficulty finding rental housing and then, when they were able to find it, finding it to be very expensive," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "We haven't heard those kinds of stories since the Olympics."

That's due to a couple of factors — new employee housing at Rainbow and Cheakamus Crossing and the impact of the recession.

"So we had a reprieve until this past fall," she added.

This building pressure on housing has been instrumental in bringing the issue of resident affordability to the forefront this year.

Housing — the WHA

The Whistler Housing Authority is considering a housing study designed to gather data on the changing housing trends and demographics in the community. The WHA board of directors will consider a draft RFP at its monthly meeting on Feb. 23.

"To some extent I think it's overdue," said WHA general manager Marla Zucht, adding that the last housing study was done before the 2010 Olympics.

"We're sensing that there's a change out there and I think we just want to get better insight into that."

That change was perhaps more evident this year as workers scrambled to find accommodation in the lead up to the winter season. The issue came to a head during the municipal election. Even now, halfway through the season while the pressure is somewhat relieved, the rental housing market remains tight.

The WHA study, if approved, will pull data from the last census, among other things.

Some things will be difficult to quantify, admitted Zucht.

"Are there more families from the Lower Mainland that are now taking out rentals that used to be otherwise?" she asked. "Hard thing to gather but we're going to try to look at some of those."

Homelessness — WCSS

Whistler Community Services Society has set aside $10,000 for a study that is set to peel back the layers on homelessness in Whistler.

"Really, this I think is going to compliment (the) other so well," said WCSS executive director Cheryl Skribe, referring to the ongoing municipal focus on affordability and the more specific work by her team. "They've (the municipality) got the big funnel at the top that they're trying to look after and then we're sort of looking after that smaller funnel at the bottom."

The WCSS study sets out to answer three specific questions. They are:

• to determine what homelessness looks like in Whistler and to quantify it;

• to quantify the current programs and support for the homeless in Whistler and determine the specific missing gaps;

• to determine if Whistler needs an emergency shelter and what that would look like.

Skribe said she does not know how many people's will be captured.

"During different times of the year it becomes more challenging when you call your home outside, and so generally that population becomes quite resourceful in getting themselves into warmer places," she added.

For many years, community partners such as WCSS, ambulance, bylaw, library staff and others, have been "silently supporting this group of people."

There are others, too, who would be included in this study.

"There's that whole precariously housed group of people that we really want to do our very best to try and access, but they're very difficult to find," said Skribe. "They're couch surfing, they're living in vehicles, they're living in some sort of temporary (situation), not always safe, not always mentally stable, (or) socially stable."

Over the past year WCSS has tweaked its strategic plan to allow for specific community-based advocacy in addition to its traditional role of one-on-one advocacy.

This is the first community-based advocacy project.

Just before Christmas WCSS launched a taxi transfer program with Resort Cabs.

The program releases funds for a taxi to take those in needs to the regional shelter in Squamish called Helping Hands.

Two people have used the service since it began about six weeks ago.

"It was seamless," said Skribe.

Affordability monitoring — RMOW

After the council retreat in the weeks following November's election, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden announced a new theme emerging on the municipal work plan: ongoing and enhanced monitoring of metrics to track long-term resident affordability in Whistler.

Specific monitoring and reporting initiatives will include:

• living-wage calculations

• family affordability levels

• real and nominal median income levels

• housing affordability and livability levels

• economic dependency ratio.

These have all been tracked in the past.

"I don't know that any are actually new," said Wilhelm-Morden. "But what we want to do, of course, is look at trends and then see if there are some actions that we can take if we're noticing change in trends."

The information will be coming around the same time as the federal government may be making changes to the working-holiday visa program. It has already announced changes to the temporary foreign workers program.

The mayor added: "We really need to be paying attention to all of those aspects."