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Living the housing dream

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When I moved to Whistler in late November 1992 there was a short term housing crisis. Every year since that same crisis careens down our Village Gate Boulevard of unrequited dreams. If a short term housing crisis consistently perpetuates itself every fall it’s probably not really as much a crisis as it is a fact of Whistler life.

One important benchmark the Whistler community set through the development of Whistler2020 is having 75 per cent of our resort community's workforce housed here. As of 2007, 78 per cent of Whistler’s workers lived here, a one per cent drop over 2006. In reality, even though the percentage dropped, 2006 was a year Whistler was short employees so the actual number of employees living in our resort community increased last year to 11,100 from 10,800 the year previous.

Arguably, the biggest sustainability success Whistler has achieved over the past decade is the development, provision and promotion of process and product to create employee housing — both rental and resident restricted ownership. As we are slightly exceeding our target or making sure a majority of the folks who work here live here, it seems this success story is being written in front of our eyes.

Since it was created in 1997, the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) has managed to foster the development or protection of 1,408 dwelling units of employee housing in support of a reported local workforce of 11,100 to the end of 2007. Using proactive tools such as occupancy restrictions, resale caps and creating the second biggest club in Whistler after WORCA — the WHA waitlist — employee housing work and investment to date is laudable. Marla Zucht, general manager of the WHA, says Whistler is the envy of every other mountain resort community in North America due to the volume, quality and consistency of the local housing product created and managed here.

With 675 families represented on the WHA waitlist, around 10 per cent of our local population holds a place on the most discussed list in town. Cheakamus Crossing, the virtual neighbourhood formerly known as the athletes’ village, hosted an Open House last month and many waitlisters were there. There, I ran into Zucht who said that while the final employee to market housing ratio has not been set for Cheakamus Crossing "around 250" units of employee-restricted housing will make a huge and positive impact on the waitlist when the project rolls over into the local housing pool July 1, 2010.

"The waitlist has 120 people on it who already live in a housing authority unit," Zucht says. "When they have an opportunity to purchase here (Cheakamus Crossing), it will have a massive trickle down effect as their units open up for others on the list. We're certainly in better shape than most other North American resort communities when it comes to employee housing. Banff just opened their first price-restricted 10 unit complex last month and that resort has been around for over a hundred years."

Included in the Cheakamus Crossing plans are the provision of the first WHA apartment building, which will support renters and their needs as well as the positive act of integrating universally accessible design to support our aging citizens and those with varied disabilities in market and resident-restricted housing. Whistler’s other new subdivision, Rainbow is back on track and plans to deliver its first duplex housing to market by the end of next summer.

As Tootie roller-skates by, braces flashing I can hear the jingle in my head: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take the rest and there you have the facts of life.”

There are a number of short-term factors which could whip up a perfect storm on the housing front up to and including 2010. Whistler is no longer simply a winter town, our employment season is four seasons and more workers are staying in town year-round. Factor into that Whistler landlords potentially turfing long-term tenants to try and cash in on perceived 2010 gold and one has to ask the question: “If the world’s coming to Whistler in 2010, where are the people who serve the world going to live?”

With the exception of Vail, just about every other U.S. and Canadian resort has a real problem with employee housing and generally the result is soul-sucking leakage to nearby towns as employees choose, or are forced to reside elsewhere. Connected issues like increased greenhouse gas emissions from increased commuting, costly investments in corridor-wide public transit and increased stress on families who work in a different community than where they live compound the negative effects of this trend.

Not only is the provision of resident housing good for employees, it is good for employers. In the August 2007 Whistler Housing Authority Employer Housing Needs Assessment, approximately two-thirds of employers (68 per cent) feel it is very important to their business for their employees to have the opportunity to purchase or rent homes directly in Whistler. A further 21 per cent of employers think it is somewhat important, while only 11 per cent feel it is not important at all.

If a temporary housing project is what we need to bridge the gap between now and 2010, then so be it. But any real crisis has been averted through many years of hard work, innovation and a few lumps over resale formulae and other growing pains. But those growing pains allow Whistler to grow by keeping our committed citizens here, allowing friends and families to live, work and play in the town we all love. Crisis, what crisis? Welcome to Whistler, hope you stay. We've making more room.

To KNOW MORE about other actions that are moving our community toward Whistler2020, to tell us how you’re contributing, or to find out how we’re performing visit www.whistler2020.ca .