Paradise Costs Whistler may be a bargain for international visitors, but how affordable is it for the people who live here? By Oona Woods It's scary the amount of times you hear people complain during the ski season that they moved here to ski but they haven't even been up the hills yet this year because they're too busy working. If you're one of those people who is reduced to just glimpsing the mountains as you dash from one job to another so you can afford to live here, don't worry, you're not alone. It's the cost of living in paradise. Market forces and supply and demand are calling the shots while the community runs around trying to create a town that is local-friendly year round, but also a high class resort. The Community Futures Development report from 1996 states that a bag of groceries bought in Whistler is 16 per cent more expensive than the same bag bought in Vancouver. This of course is above and beyond those times you accidentally spend $4.44 on two fancy-dance tomatoes or inadvertently purchase an imported British cucumber for $7. For every 50 bucks you spend on groceries there's a whole $8 left jingling in your Vancouver counterpart's pocket. This would be a bearable statistic if wages were 7 per cent higher but as Whistler Community Services Co-ordinator Janet McDonald points out, this is not the case. "The general cost of living, paying for groceries, gas, etc. and affordable housing of course, is relevant to wages. I recently ran into a quote from the ’96 monitoring report that says the mean wage for men in Whistler is 29 per cent lower than the provincial level. It's pretty shocking. From what I understand of statistics and the way they work this essentially means that a small number of wage earners are making substantial amounts of money. For everyone else the level is low to bring it (the average) down that much." McDonald points out that the mean average for women in Whistler is about the same as in the rest of B.C. because women tend to end up in the service industry, which is traditionally a minimum wage stomping ground. The recent Healthy Communities Forum in Whistler focused on a number of areas, from the child care crisis to mental health in the valley. Two areas that came up as major concerns were the perennial favourites, employment and housing. "Affordability is a complicated issue that we can't fix overnight," says McDonald. "The groups did discuss some small achievable objectives that they may be able to accomplish." The working groups for each issue will continue to meet and aim towards the goals they outlined. For employment the group was concerned about wages, cost of living, the seasonal nature of jobs, lack of employment guidelines, difficulties in keeping staff, a highly educated and skilled workforce doing unskilled jobs, and foreign workers. Their goals lie in retraining, pooling resources and developing a partnership with employers to develop year round opportunities. Their ultimate goal is to create, "sustainable employment where year round positions offer a comfortable standard of living and personal reward." In other words, just because you work at low end jobs to serve the tourists, you shouldn't feel disrespected, undervalued or impoverished. But these goals have to be achieved in a town where the economy is based on tourism, which is cyclical. In terms of housing, the crisis areas identified by the seminar group included individuals looking to stay year round, single people and couples wanting to buy, the demand for one, two and three bedrooms to buy and rent and the notion that even affordable housing is getting too expensive. Their objectives include taking action on this issue and educating the public, in particular the NIMBY crowd, as well as conducting more frequent needs assessments and ensuring that appropriate land is sought. Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has made the issue of affordability in Whistler a personal favourite. She sees the root of the problem as two-fold. "The bulk of the population in Whistler is in the service industry. Many of the workers are on minimum wage if not a bit more. It would be wonderful if the employers could afford higher wages but for the most part it's not realistic in this industry. If we don't get on top of affordable housing we'll have a situation where all of the workforce will have to live out of town. The fact that we require affordable housing in Whistler is a no-brainer." The average price of a single family home sold in Whistler in 1997 was $651,580. This is mildly cheaper than shelter in Vail, which costs about $1 million Cdn., and Aspen, where a des res will set you back well over $2.5 million Cdn. However, as municipal planner Kim Needham says, although the real estate marker in B.C. has been very hot the difference between Whistler and the rest of Canada is still staggering. "Right now the Canadian average price for a family home is $120,000." Needham says this harsh fact is behind a lot of the migration away from Whistler and the outlying communities are reaping the benefits, whether they want them or not. "When people can't afford to live here they leave, or move to Pemberton and Squamish. When people leave you've lost good staff and all the time and money that went into training them. More importantly you lose valuable people who would have been contributing to the community here. When they don't have a vested interest and they become tied to somewhere else they lose the Whistler spirit. There's also the fact that instead of living here and taking the bus or biking, they are now bringing their cars and taking up space in the village. That's another problem." According to statistics from the 1991 national census, only 41 per cent of Whistler residents own their homes, compared to 68 per cent in Pemberton and as much as 72 per cent in Squamish. McDonald proposes that as a town Whistler should be concentrating on sustaining a middle class, that age old buffer between the proletariat and the aristocracy. "I don't know if we want Whistler to just be affluent," she says. Wilhelm-Morden echoes this sentiment. "I really believe it's very important to maintain a community with normal ranges of family incomes. If we don't seriously address the issues people with families will be priced out fairly quickly. I know wealthy people have families too, but they can live here forever. We're losing the heart and soul of our communities." Back at the planning department, Needham says that the people most affected by these high prices tend to be the average workers. "Pretty much everyone is affected. But single parent families get the worst of it. Many singles are affected because they have no partner to buy a place with. Mid-term residents that are looking to stay longer can find it's not possible." McDonald also says that community services like the foodbank are essential in a resort town like Whistler. "It's a good part of the reason that the WCS is here. To make sure that it's not just the affluent that can survive. People can be here for many, many years and then run into tougher times. We're here to help you get back on your feet again." The number of people coming into Whistler is still on the rise. In 1997 the full time population was estimated to be around 8,000. The RMOW planning department predicts that this figure will rise to 11,000. They do point out that it's not possible to be completely accurate with this because the in-migration of second home owners can't be fully quantified. So as more and more people head for the hills and that mountain lifestyle, will the affordability issue get even worse? "It's a good resort, a first class resort," says Needham. "That's the draw. Everybody wants to be here. But with more and more people coming in you don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. It is supply and demand but that's why we have to have a cap on development." Here and now a range of accessible accommodation is scarce. This means those good ol' market forces do what they do best and sidle up behind landlords, whisper in their ears and prompt them into higher pricing. "We're running into the issue of lack of accommodation," says McDonald. "More and more landlords can charge what they want and that's too bad. It reaches a point where you should have a social conscience about it all. I mean it's nice and convenient to be able to pay off your mortgage with renters, but not at the expense of complete gouging." One of the steps toward correcting this is for the newly formed Whistler Valley Housing Corporation to create a deeper housing pool. Rick Staehli is in charge of the excavations. "There are a number of things we'll be utilizing, like the Employee Housing and Works and Services fund to build in the needs group area," says Staehli. "The needs group is one and two bedroom apartments and townhouses. We'll also be standardizing the lot draw process for both renters and purchasers and we'll be creating a one-stop shop for housing needs — a complete list and time frame of what's available and when the product will be coming on-line." The housing corporation is looking to cater to residents who have been in town over two or three seasons. Their mandate is to look "beyond the dorms," says Staehli. "It's a very tough one to do. Prices are higher than everywhere else in B.C. You're only supposed to spend 30 per cent of your gross income on accommodation. That's $300 if $1,000 is your max. In Whistler you're paying double that for shelter. $1.25 a foot is about as low as we can produce the stuff. That translates to about $500-$600 for a one bedroom and $800 to $1,000 for a two bedroom, depending on size. One may not consider that affordable." Staehli says that the development of more housing will free up the market and begin to chase away the Supply and Demand demons. "People will move out (of expensive housing) when there's more product on the market. This will help lower the rents. If we get the right formula the prices will stabilize. Right now you can ask anything and get it, but if the market is adequately served the bottom end will become more affordable. It's all supply and demand. There's a hell of a demand and no supply." Staehli is hoping the community will be more supportive of affordable accommodation development. "The more there is built, the better off the community will be." Needham says that she can only speak for herself on this issue but she feels disappointed by the NIMBY reaction towards the affordable housing projects. "I feel that it would be really nice if people took the time to educate themselves on the issue. Instead of just looking in their backyard they should look at the big picture. People get caught up in the small projects and issues. If these projects don't go up because of NIMBYism it will be too bad. In the end nothing will happen. It's not just 19 Mile Creek but a whole bunch of new projects. I hate to see it but we will be shooting ourselves in the foot." Project areas scheduled for development include Lorimer Road, Beaver Flats and Nesters. The muni's vision for the town, Whistler 2002, Charting A Course for the Future, has a section entitled How We're Getting There. "There" being a strong resort community that's solvent, green, entrepreneurial and visitor friendly. Among the goals of encouraging arts, culture, family and youth programs, fostering a healthy community and diversifying the economy, the Whistler 2002 vision aims to make Whistler affordable for residents. "The shortage of affordable housing is one of the largest challenges facing our community," says Whistler 2002. "But the affordability challenge for most residents extends beyond housing. The municipality will address both issues by guiding affordable housing initiatives and supporting an expanded Ambassador program." Currently the Ambassador program, run by the chamber of commerce, provides discounts on season ski passes, both alpine and cross country, for local employees who complete the Ambassador course. The municipality offers what are effectively locals’ discounts on multi-use passes at the recreation centre, but any other locals’ discounts offered are at the discretion of individual businesses. (The municipality also plans to lobby the provincial government for changes to the tax structure which would shift some financial responsibility from property owners to tourists, as is done in many American resorts. However, it’s likely a long-term project to convince the province to reform taxes.) In the end the muni can't make businesses do anything because, remember, it's those heavies Supply and Demand who are running this burg. "The muni doesn't have a whole lot of pull on pricing," says Needham. "Places here have a local's discount (like the Nester's point system) which is a start. We don't have control. It's so market driven, you can't control the prices." Needham adds that the upside to all of this is that we have facilities in this town that places with populations of 70,000 don't have. "We do pay higher prices to enjoy a high quality of life and we enjoy services most people wouldn't enjoy, like the arena, pool and valley trail system." Councillor Wilhelm-Morden would like to see affordability in these areas too. "I don't like this dinging people for things that used to be free. Like the slo-pitch grounds. Everyone who plays slo-pitch this year will now have to pay more to use the grounds. Also the cross-country trails. This is the first year they haven't been free. It's great that we can use them, but I want to see the burden of fees placed on the tourists while the locals get a break. A lot of these things were primarily built to serve tourists not residents. The people that they were built for should bear the brunt of cost." All of the plans afoot to make Whistler more affordable are subject to tinkering with by the gods of market forces. Whatever way you look at it developers building affordable housing aren't doing it for love, they still need to make a profit. Employers can't afford to keep on good employees during the shoulder seasons when they're paying sky high rent. Supermarkets here have to cater to the average working Joe at the same time as making sure they have the perfect trimmings to accompany that Atlantic lobster the weekenders are flying in fresh for dinner. The entrepreneurial spirit is a large part of why Whistler has been a success, but the resort has become so successful and so desirable that if left strictly to the laws of supply and demand, only the wealthiest may be able to survive here in the long term.