‘Wait till next year’ Going round and round the housing issue By Bob Barnett In the next couple of weeks the municipality will issue another call for affordable housing proposals. That is, proposals for housing that may be available next winter. This winter, if you don’t already have accommodation, you may be too late. "Next year." The familiar cry of losing baseball teams and employee housing advocates. A year ago, then municipal finance director Drew Stotesbury wrote to council that "All indications are that the coming ski season will see a critical shortage of employee accommodation unless drastic action is taken." The panic was caused by another record year of construction, which was producing new commercial space, which in turn would mean a large influx of new employees. But last year was also the first time that construction continued on such a large scale right through the winter. That meant that several large crews of construction workers were competing with winter employees for accommodation. In response to this crisis, two private proposals for temporary housing — i.e. trailers — for approximately 475 people came forward. The proposals were just as quickly withdrawn, following opposition from neighbours and some recalculating which showed the trailers would have to be in place five years for the proponents to get a return on their investment. With no new affordable or employee housing coming forward it was going to be tough, but if Whistler could struggle through one more winter there would be some relief by the fall of 1996. It is now the fall of 1996. The 85-unit Millar’s Pond affordable housing project will be ready for the winter, but that’s likely to be the only net gain in affordable or employee housing space this season. "It’s the same situation this fall as last fall," says an exasperated Whistler Valley Housing Society Chair Max Kirkpatrick. "We worked hard and I though we had made some progress, but..." The difference between this fall and last fall is that Whistler has eclipsed last summer’s construction record. Moreover, major construction projects at the Chateau Whistler, Mont Blanc and Intrawest’s One Whistler Village will continue through the winter, meaning construction workers will be competing with resort employees for housing again this season. That adds up to more people than ever working in Whistler this winter. No one really has any way to gauge how great the demand for housing will be this year. Kirkpatrick says the housing society is hoping for a domino effect from the Millar’s Pond project, meaning that the people who move into Millar’s Pond will be vacating suites which will then become available to others. It may even be that this year’s housing crunch won’t appear any worse than previous years’ — but that may be because so many people have given up on Whistler and moved to Pemberton. Drew Meredith of Whistler Real Estate contends that many of the more than 700 people who entered the Millar’s Pond lottery discovered that they qualified for a mortgage and when they didn’t get a chance to buy into the affordable housing project looked north for something they could get for the same price. Pemberton may provide a housing solution for individuals, but it’s at Whistler’s expense. In the long term, if the people who work in Whistler don’t live here the resort and the community will suffer. That’s always been the fundamental premise the Whistler Valley Housing Society and successive councils have operated from, but progress on affordable housing has been painfully slow — though not because the municipality doesn’t have the means to address the issue. In the past year the municipality’s affordable housing fund, the bank account each commercial development has paid into based on the number of permanent jobs each created, has grown from approximately $2 million to an estimated $4.5 million. It’s expected to reach $6 million by year end. A year ago Mayor Ted Nebbeling said: "The philosophy behind holding on to the employee housing charges is to acquire land. If we can eliminate the land-cost component of a project we can make housing affordable. That’s why we’ve been hanging on to that fund so tenaciously — to buy land." To date, the municipality hasn’t bought any land. Kirkpatrick says the housing society is prepared to open the bank account, but council feels it should issue another proposal call. "We did this a while back, but council feels this is the way to go," says Kirkpatrick. He adds there are several good proposals for affordable housing in the works, but no one wants to deal with them this close to a municipal election. "If I took a plan forward now it would get hit by NIMBYs. We have to leave it to the next council," Kirkpatrick says. Given Whistler’s track record for creating affordable housing and looking ahead to what will be added next winter — the Chateau Whistler expansion, One Whistler, Mont Blanc, at least two more lodges in Village North and dozens of condominiums — some steps need to be taken to ensure more housing is available next year. Both Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb are planning to build additional staff accommodation next summer, which will relieve some of the pressure for seasonal housing. A lottery for the 23 Barnfield Farm single-family affordable lots will take place this fall, but the number of lottery entrants is expected to far exceed the number of lots. But those efforts just scratch the surface. With employers now locking up suites and rental units for their own employees it may be time for the municipality to finally open up the housing fund. "Next year" may be too late.