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Resident affordability continues to be a concern

Fewer people can afford cost of living in Whistler, according to monitoring report

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Surviving in Whistler has always been a challenge for its young arrivals, but with hard work and a little creativity most people can manage to put a roof over their heads and food in the fridge. Thriving here, however, is a different story.

For the past four years the Whistler 2020 working group on Resident Affordability and the Resort Municipality of Whistler have used a number of indicators - a shopping basket of goods and services that includes housing, transportation, food and clothing - to determine the basic cost of living. They then compare those costs to wages to determine roughly how many season workers and long-term residents are living below the line.

At first glance the data is not encouraging.

According to the figures collected roughly 85 per cent of seasonal residents are earning less than the cost of living, up from 66 per cent in 2006 and 70 per cent in 2007.

The situation is not as dramatic for permanent residents, many of whom own houses and are raising families in Whistler. However, the indicators suggest that roughly 31 per cent of residents earned less than the cost of living in 2008, up from 27 per cent the previous year and 18 per cent in 2006. The figure for 2005, the first year data was kept, was 24 per cent.

There are many factors that the surveys don't account for, such as declines in employment hours and wages during poor snow years, which would include the 2008-09 season, or for seasonal workers that choose to work less than 40 hours per week.

Generally speaking, couples who combine incomes were better off than other groups and few had trouble meeting the minimum cost of living. Meanwhile families of three or more can have it tougher - 38 per cent fell below the basic cost of living in 2008 compared to 33 per cent in 2007. Single parents, usually single mothers, are often the most challenged demographic.

Mayor Ken Melamed said affordability has always been a major concern for the community and will likely take centre stage once again when the Olympics have wrapped up.

"It's always been on our minds, but the challenge has always been, what are the metrics, and what is it possible for a local government to do... without competing with businesses or giving businesses subsidies," he said. "It's largely a market-controlled situation, although we do what we can in the municipal framework."

For example, Melamed pointed to the recent decision to offer discounted six month and annual passes to ride the Whistler and Valley Express (WAVE) bus service, keeping costs low for parks and recreation programs, and amenities like the Valley Trail and mountain bike trails that are free to use. The Resort Municipality of Whistler was also responsible for the creation and expansion of the Whistler Housing Authority, which provides non-market housing for purchase and rent to Whistler employees.

As for the metrics, Melamed said it's difficult to apply a cost of living to certain demographics, especially for younger workers who earn less by choice.

"Even though a large portion and increasing portion of (seasonal workers) don't make enough to meet costs or the basket of goods, when asked how many work full-time or would work more hours the answers came back in the negative," said Melamed. "It appears that people are living at a certain income level by choice, even if they have options to increase that earning level. It also goes back to lifestyle, so the rules don't necessarily apply equally there. There are some confusing things that we need to understand better."

The RMOW says some of the best progress in meeting affordability issues is the result of farming out opportunities to existing groups or working with partners - something that is also a core value of the Whistler 2020 framework. For example, Melamed points to the success of the Re-Use-It Centre for the Whistler Community Services Society, as well as the efforts of groups like the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, Whistler Arts Council and others to support the community.

"I'm quite happy and pleased to support the community groups that are better able to focus their efforts and that come back to us when they need our support," he said.

Another idea Melamed would like to see brought to life in Whistler is a co-op grocery store. It's in his family, with a cousin operating two stores in Olympia, Washington and his parents volunteering at a store in Montreal. However, Melamed says that village space is at a premium and even less expensive buildings in Function Junction are probably still too expensive for a co-op's purposes.

"That's the reality in Whistler, these stores do well in areas where you might find unused warehouse space with very low overhead and we don't have that," he said.

The municipality also has to balance the tourism and resort experience with affordability, something that came into play in 2007 when council voted down an application that would have resulted in a 17,000 square foot London Drugs store in the village.

"The question was never whether London Drugs was welcome in Whistler, it was always the location," he said. "The decision hinged on the fact that Whistler Village is not the place for big box, low-cost shopping experience."

In that sense he said Squamish is becoming a larger part of making Whistler affordable.

"We don't need surveys to know that there is a higher cost of living in Whistler," he said. "We don't have a Wal-Mart, a Canadian Tire or a London Drugs, but it's interesting now with the Squamish commuter service that more residents are taking advantage of the options that exist in Squamish. Maybe it's a regional answer we need to be contemplating moving forward.

"I do know that after the Games as Whistler continues to mature we're going to have to look at more ways to continue to address the affordability issue."

The Whistler 2020 task force on Resident Affordability is without a coordinator at this point, but in recent years the Whistler Community Services Society has taken the lead on the issue. The WCSS already administers the Food Bank, Re-Use-It Centre, Greenhouse Project, KidSport, Whistler Survival Guide and several other programs targeted to low income residents. Now, the WCSS is branching out with the creation of a Food Buying Club, advocating on behalf of a commercial greenhouse in Whistler, raising funds to build a Re-Build-It Centre to recycle and reuse construction materials and building supplies, and organizing other programs for families with limited incomes.

Greg McDonnell, the executive director of the WCSS, is proud of the efforts they've made in recent years on behalf of lower income families and residents.

"I think we're definitely trying to pick the low-hanging fruit a little bit and adding programs that don't cost a lot of money," he said. "We have added a lot of programs over the last couple of years, and I think that's been good management on our part in that we've been smart about it - we haven't taken on any expensive programs and used social entrepreneurship through things like the Re-Use-It Centre to raise money for our other programs. Hopefully we'll expand that with the Re-Build-It Centre, which will allow us to add even more programs in the future."

Some programs, like the greenhouse program, pay for themselves, while others like their Youth Outreach Programs are funded by grants and revenues from the Re-Use-It Centre. The Food Bank is mainly fueled by donations of food and money, and although the demand for services in the summer ate away a lot of its supply for the winter season the community has responded with food drives and donations.

"We're definitely down in donations, as everyone knows, but we're getting a lot of support from the community this winter. The Fairmont's (Chateau Whistler) employee foundation did a huge food drive for us this past week, which will go a long way to fill up our shelves. And we've been getting some great donations that we weren't expecting," said McDonnell.

The Stu Archer Foundation also made a $10,000 grant to KidSport recently, a program that assists low income families in enrolling their children in sports, recreation and arts programs.

Recognizing that food and housing are the biggest expenses for Whistler employees, the WCSS is establishing a Food Buying Club where people can purchase bulk food to pick up. The program will likely be available for pick up once a month at the start, but additional pickups will be organized as it gains tractions.

Food will be sourced locally when possible, but the program will also look at things like miles traveled, packaging and nutritional value.

As well the WCSS is putting together a program where chartered accountants can volunteer to help low-income individuals and families file their taxes. The goal is to extend that to lawyers as well, providing free legal advice.

"Those are things we can do that are of no cost to us, other than some human resources time to organize them and link up the volunteers with clients," said McDonnell.

The Whistler 2020 task force on Resident Affordability, like other task forces, is always looking for new volunteers and ideas, as well as partnership opportunities in the community. More information is posted at www.whistler202.ca under Taking Action.

The Whistler Community Services Society website is www.mywcss.org.