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More employee housing planned



WHA business plan identifies additional 500 beds needed

An additional 500 seasonal rental beds over the next two years is targeted by the Whistler Housing Authority in its 2001-2003 business plan, and the WHA is counting on the Whistler businesses community to commit to annual leases to make it happen.

The business plan, adopted by Whistler council Tuesday, also signals a restructuring and new direction for the WHA, as it focuses more on project facilitation, research and policy consideration, property management and administration.

"We’re not so much focused on development anymore," WHA Chair Kristi Wells said Wednesday. "That was (general manager) Rick Staehli’s expertise. His job was to spend the employee housing fund and create beds, which he did."

When it was founded as a subsidiary of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1997 the WHA adopted a goal of housing 80 per cent of Whistler employees in Whistler. One-third of that 80 per cent were expected to reside in employee-restricted housing, while the remaining two-thirds would find housing in privately owned suites and houses.

Using these goals, as well as surveys which showed how many employees were working in Whistler at the time and how many more jobs were likely to be created, the WHA determined that 4,300 employee restricted beds would be needed by buildout. With the 350 employee-restricted beds that are being built this summer, as well as the 760 employee-restricted beds that are planned and zoned for the next few years, the target of 4,300 will have been met. And the employee housing fund is virtually exhausted.

However, based on focus group sessions and the business community’s concerns the WHA has determined that an additional 500 seasonal rental beds are now needed, bringing the total to 4,800 employee-restricted beds.

Wells said they will almost certainly have to be developed by the private sector in a public-private partnership, which will also likely involve some sort of market housing component.

She added that the WHA has done a matrix with the municipal planning department, looking at all the possible sites in the valley for housing and what sort of costs and limitations are involved with each.

"There won’t be any proposal call," Wells said. "It will be our initiative. We’ll identify the land and go to the owner, or the owner may come to us.

"But it has to be seasonal (housing). We’re relying on the business community to make a commitment. The bank will probably require that for financing."

Wells added that the five community amenity lots on the B.C. Rail lands could be part of the equation that leads to the extra 500 beds.

Meanwhile, as the housing authority’s role is changing some of its fundamental goals are being questioned. Staehli, in his presentation to council Tuesday night, said the target of housing 80 per cent of employees in Whistler was being met up until last year, when it slipped to 79 per cent. He expects it has fallen lower than that this year.

Asked if the WHA had given up hope of getting back to 80 per cent Staehli replied: "That’s exactly what I’ve said. We need a greater degree of subsidy and/or higher wages to maintain 80 per cent."

As well, the amount of private sector employee housing in Whistler is expected to decline as older homes are torn down and replaced with newer, more expensive homes. Tracking this rate of attrition is one of the new roles the WHA is taking on.

A second challenge, Wells told council Tuesday, is affordability. Even the WHA’s "affordable" employee housing is no longer affordable to some.

"The wait list on for-purchase employee housing is dwindling because people are finding they can’t afford to buy," Wells said.

Another problem, Wells said, is tracking Whistler’s population. A number of new, non-tourist-related businesses have been established in Whistler in recent years and there’s no way of recognizing their impact on the community, Wells said.

"One thing we need to do is work with the planning department on the sustainability of the resort," Wells said.

Councillor Ted Milner echoed that sentiment, saying council hasn’t come to grips with how big the resort should be in terms of numbers of employees.

Wells acknowledged their may have been a gap between the housing authority and the municipal planning department in the past, but senior planner Kim Needham has now been given the title of Housing Planner and will focus specifically on employee housing. Her duties will include determining the resort’s capacity and how to best meet employee housing needs within that framework.

"The housing authority has been very focused and (in the past) we’ve gotten frustrated when planning was not as focused on housing," Wells said.

Council has also asked staff to prepare a revised employee housing service charge bylaw, with the intent of boosting the per-employee fee charged to new commercial developments.

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