Opinion » Maxed Out

Housing solutions need creativity

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Notwithstanding the drawbacks of success, Whistler is a place that endlessly leaves me awestruck. What's been accomplished here, in a span of less than 60 years, is without precedent in Canada and, likely, North America. We've gone from a twinkle in the eye of a handful of Olympic groupies to a very successful resort and a reasonably successful town.

The warts, the drawbacks, are side effects of that success and we can never go back to whatever those of us who've been here for decades—and decades longer than me—believe we remember as a "better" time. This is tomorrow's better time.

Arguably the largest and most threatening of those drawbacks is our supply of affordable housing. It lags both the demand for housing and the demand for workers to keep the wheels of commerce greased.

We need more housing for people who want to be here for a good time, not a long time—our very necessary economic migrants who do jobs that need to be done but will never pay enough to support a long-term life in Tiny Town. They need apartments, dormitories, suites and maybe campgrounds, for a season, for a year. To be clear, this housing has never been, nor should it be, an undertaking of the RMOW.

We need more housing for people who might have thought they were only here for a season or a year but were seduced by the magic of the place. They need stable, long-term, liveable rentals or affordable places they can own, settle down, raise a family, retire.

We will need—and to some extent need now—more housing for people who have been here long enough to retire, grow older and require fewer impediments to stick around for as many more seasons as they can. Whistler will never be a place to grow old and infirm. But living on one floor instead of three, in a home with no yard to care for and no driveway to shovel, is not asking too much. And with no possibility of that kind of housing being built privately, it will only be supplied by the RMOW — the only source of bed units and, arguably land — if it is to be supplied at all.

How to do this is the trick.

George Satayana famously wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But sometimes, looking to the past for guidance isn't as helpful as we might think.

Case in point, the impetus for the newly revised guidelines for private development of employee housing.

When you've got a process or a product or a car or a pair of skis that just don't work, you've got three choices: suck it up and hope it either gets better or you get used to it; fix it; or junk it.

Council has chosen to try to fix the guidelines when it became clear they weren't working, something that was pretty clear from the beginning, notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which they were greeted.

But in trying to fix them, they've borrowed a page from the remembered past. When the Whistler Housing Authority, and its predecessor the Housing Society, wanted to get affordable housing built, they cut deals with private developers. In exchange for more market density, developers agreed to build some WHA housing. They didn't make a profit on it but they didn't lose money either and the RMOW didn't subsidize it other than forgoing internal charges.

It wasn't a bad model.

Then.

The RMOW didn't have any land to develop itself. Buildout—our self-imposed limit to growth as measured by bed units—was still a shimmering mirage in the distance. Developers won; the muni won; people who needed housing won.

So why is it a bad model now? Why shouldn't the RMOW change the guidelines to sweeten the pot and allow developers to have some market housing and some employee housing in their proposed developments?

The RMOW has land now upon which to build affordable employee-restricted housing. We've barely chipped away at the 300 acres we received as an Olympic legacy. It's land we own free and clear and represents an incredibly valuable asset.

We're a lot closer to buildout now and the RMOW is going to have to create the bed units they bestow on private developers under these guidelines. Every bed unit they give to private developers represents one less bed unit they have to build affordable, employee-restricted housing. Why? Because unlike a time in the past we perhaps should remember, employee bed units now count against buildout. Use one for market development and it's one less you have for more needed housing.

Finally, questions still remain about whether private developers can actually build affordable employee-restricted housing.

But clearly, council is not going to junk this idea. Listening to the comments from the Feb. 26 and March 26 council meetings, there is no appetite on council to put this suffering dog down. So how can we fix it even better?

As much as I'd like to say we can't, here's a few proposals.

The change away from 100-per-cent rental is positive. A mix of ownership and rental is both needed and desirable. Tying rental increases to the BC Residential Tenancy Office guidelines is not. Doing so will only rapidly make questionably affordable rentals unaffordable, resulting in pressure to open up the rentals to market. Since council has recognized the importance of tying price increases of ownership units to WHA's core consumer price index multiplier, why not tie rent increases to WHA increases?

There was much discussion about staff's recommendation to "consider" WHA waitlists for both rental and ownership units as opposed to giving them a "preference." Both are weasel words. If you're building employee-restricted housing the availability of that housing should be made exclusively to the existing waitlists. For reasons outlined in previous columns, to open these rental or ownership units up to local businesses to rent or buy ahead of people who have been waitlisted for years creates a more important class of employees and a less important—waitlisted—class. It's wrong and it should be stopped now!

If we're going to enrich private developers with bed units that won't be going to employee-restricted housing, make sure the employee housing they build is, actually, affordable. Not affordable to those StatsCan, census-generated employees who bring down $110,000 a year, whoever they are. But employees who work in, say, management roles at Whistler Blackcomb. In other words, pricing guidelines should be closely aligned with what's being produced by WHA.

Oh, and let's not go back to incrementalism. Evaluating projects on an ad hoc basis is not going to produce the best projects to meet the RMOW's goals for private developer built units. That's why it was abandoned in the first place. Stick with the proposal call.

This is the time we create our own future history to remember. Don't screw it up.

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