Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed out

Hold your nose, again



With the Beijing Olympics over and CBC having returned to its derivative, somnambulistic programming, one lesson is clear, one in which the residents of Tiny Town can take some solace. Notwithstanding the nearly decade-long foreplay, the Games will come, the Games will finish, life will go on.

When the last member of the Olympic family packs his swagbag and trundles off to the next gloryfest, we’ll chainsaw those hideously ugly Olympic venue signs — we will, won’t we? — and get our town back. We may have trouble recognizing it but someday, far in the future, what is now the near future will probably seem like the good old days. Don’t worry; be happy.

While there have been numerous Olympic assaults on the general direction we thought Whistler was headed in, none have been quite as stinging as the ones agreed to by council in the last two weeks and advocated by at least one highly conflicted letter writer.

The great dissatisfaction with the previous council revolved around its seeming inability to make headway on building non-market housing — resident-restricted, employee or affordable housing if you will. While the town bled good people who couldn’t crack the housing nut, new projects remained a pipedream and lip service remained the coin of the realm.

This council attacked the problem with renewed vigour. Rainbow slowly became a more likely reality and the athletes’ village — Cheakamus Crossing, although the Village of Golden Dreams still strikes me as the better name — loomed large. Compromises were made with the private developers of Rainbow that led Councillor McKeever to recommend the “hold our noses and get on with it” approach. And compromises are now being agreed to with the Whistler 2020 Development Corporation (WDC) that unnecessarily undermine the gains made over the past decades in the battles to bring non-market housing to a level where Whistler can boast an ability to house upwards of 75 per cent of our workforce in town instead of upvalley.

Non-market housing is one thing, not the only thing but a big thing, this town’s struggled with and succeeded in doing right. It hasn’t been easy. It has been a learn-as-you-go experience. There have been setbacks and failures, reformulations, good ideas abandoned and better ideas adopted. But the goal has always been to enhance the resort experience by housing that large percentage of workerbees within municipal boundaries. The single biggest key to ensuring the future viability of those efforts has been keeping the appreciation of non-market housing low so future owners could afford to buy it from past owners. If we don’t succeed at that, all the efforts to get non-market housing built will be a wasted one-shot deal with no future payoff.

The people who have staffed the Whistler Housing Authority have understood this. The WHA board has understood this. Council has, I thought, understood this. It has been well understood since Garry Watson fought the first battle with Mayor Nebbeling over the subject nearly 20 years ago.

So what in the world was council thinking when it agreed to WDC’s request to start appreciating Cheakamus Crossing units when people sign their sales contract instead of when they take possession?

When prices are released next month and sales begin, buyers will have to put down 2 per cent deposit when they sign their sales agreement. They’ll have to come up with another 3 per cent a year in advance of closing, projected to be November 2009. They’ll get their new homes around June of 2010, perhaps 18 months after they’ve put up their deposits, which will be held in trust and which will earn interest.

Their new homes will begin to appreciate in value according to WHA’s CCPI formula when the contract is signed, not when they take possession.

Let’s compare this arrangement to one with which I am intimately familiar: WHA’s Nita Lake project, my home. In late March, 2006, we signed the sales agreement and a cheque for 10 per cent of the sales price. In late February, 2007, 11 months later, we moved in, the appreciation clock started running. The total number of Nita Lake purchasers who complained about this arrangement was zero.

So why has council agreed to this plan? Its main effect will be to inflate the cost of Cheakamus Crossing housing to future purchasers while affording first-time CC buyers a small, unasked for bonus. WHA was against the idea. The WHA board was against the idea. At the very minimum, council has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Of course, it never explained why this project is being sold by Whistler Real Estate Co., who received what can most generously be described as a gift of half a million bucks for their services either. WHA has provided those services in the past and have had to train WRE people on how to sell non-market housing. Since selling WHA housing has been pretty much an exercise in starting at the top of the waitlist and working your way down, it’s an Olympic size curiosity that a realtor with no experience in selling non-market housing should get the contract instead of, oh, hiring another WHA employee or two for the time necessary to complete the sales. But then, it’s an even bigger curiosity why there’s a $1 million “marketing” budget for selling the units as well. This additional $1.5 million has added about $7.50/square foot to the cost of CC units.

The saddest part of this agreement is that it will likely become the new norm for future WHA projects. Why wouldn’t it? You toss a bone like that to one group of purchasers, others will want it.

I’m pretty sure Dave Sharpe will want it. Dave wants the WHA to include the price of his appliance, countertop and flooring upgrades at Rainbow in the base value, for appreciation purposes, of the home he’s buying there. He made a facile argument in the Letters section earlier this month to that effect. He can’t understand why WHA would “…not allow the cost of this group of modest upgrades to be added to the base price of our homes?”

If you buy a WHA home, move in and decide to upgrade your appliances, countertops and flooring — and a surprising number of people do — those costs are not added to the base value of your home. There’s really no difference in buying those upgrades from the developer.

But Dave’s never been too keen on the workings of the WHA. He led the fight against WHA’s valuation of the homes at Barnfield, his first non-market home, insisting it should be valued by appraisal comparison with market homes, not based on cost to build. He also conveniently fails to mention in his letter he’s avoided the long, slow climb up the waitlist for Rainbow because of his employment with one of the project’s developers. Some guys are pretty hard to please.

Like all things caught up in the rush to the Olympics, this one’s a done deal. A bad deal, but a done deal. Let’s hope we can live with the consequences.