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The once and future housing solution

New chair Nick Davies discusses the opportunities, priorities and directions for the Whistler Housing Authority

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There is $5 million in the fund, 400 applicants on the waitlist and a 300-acre land bank to build employee housing.

Without a doubt, Whistler has set the stage to deliver employee housing to the community.

But, the way to do it still remains unclear

"The concern I have is that if we don’t start wrapping our minds around this, there’s going to be some public pressure," said Councillor Nick Davies, new chair of the Whistler Housing Authority.

Last week, the waitlist to purchase WHA housing topped 400 applicants – the longest it has ever been.

All of those applicants, which represent more than 800 community members, have pre-approved mortgages in hand and are waiting to buy employee housing when the right opportunity arises. They have been told that the wait for housing could be more than two years, if not much longer.

Meanwhile this summer, the WHA sold off their Nordic Court rental building and replenished the housing fund with approximately $5 million.

Like it has in the past, the fund can be leveraged by the WHA to build housing units.

For example, between 1997 and 2002, roughly $6.5 million was used in the fund to build 144 units in the community.

Along with the money, the municipality now has land.

During the Olympic Bid process, Whistler successfully negotiated a 300-acre land bank legacy to be used for employee housing.

Part of the legacy will be used to build the Olympic Athletes Village in the south end of town, which will ultimately turn into housing for the community after 2010. The rest of the land bank however can be used for other employee housing projects in the interim.

Council received an extensive housing report, produced earlier this year, which highlights a number of privately held lands and some small pieces of Crown land suitable for employee housing.

Estimating the housing capacity on the top 33 sites, the report shows that even if 20 per cent of this land was developed, it could produce almost 1,700 resident housing units.

An additional 13 sites were categorized as small infill sites and road ends that could yield small amounts of housing.

And so, there’s little doubt that the Whistler Housing Authority is at a unique place in its seven-year history.

The demand for housing is unquestionable. The land is ready for the taking. The money is at the municipality’s disposal.

By all accounts, there is also the political will to house 75 per cent of the workforce within the resort boundaries.

At this critical juncture in the WHA’s history, Pique Newsmagazine sat down for a candid interview with the newly appointed chair of the WHA.

Davies has been at the helm of the organization since the beginning of June. This is what he said.

Q: What do you want to accomplish in your new role as chair of the Whistler Housing Authority?

A: Well, a couple of things. Number one is I want to get this governance review completed…

It’s something that I initiated as a result of discussions with the housing authority and with staff. And the feeling on both sides was that the working relationship between the housing authority and the hall, could be better. So I started asking myself, well why is that, what are the issues? And a lot of it was stuff that was really easy to fix… Really it’s just that the housing authority was created (in 1997) and as any entrepreneurial organization evolves, the way it does business sort of gets ingrained, and it was time to stand back and say "is this the best way to do business or could we do it better?"

In a global sense, what (the review) does is it makes sure that the municipality and the housing authority are heading in the same direction to accomplish our objectives… it makes sure that everybody understands what their job is and what the relationship is….

(In addition to the governance review) we (also) need to start thinking about what we’re going to do with some of the opportunities that we have available. And some of these are issues that will take a lot of planning and some of them are issues where we (council)… simply have to come up with a plan of action…. We’ve got $5 million in cash and potentially 300 acres of land – those are big decisions and they require some serious planning. But there are also opportunities… such as road ends and road allowances and some small parcels (of land) around – those sorts of opportunities, you just need to figure out what to do with those and get on with it.

The concern I have is that if we don’t start wrapping our minds around this, there’s going to be some public pressure. People are going to say "you’ve got the land and you’ve got a bunch of money and you’ve got a waiting list of 400, let’s get on with it." And we have to resist that pressure because like any other large scale planning decision, we have to be very, very careful what we do in this community. But one of things I’d like to do is get going with those road ends and those smaller parcels and see what we can do with them.

The bigger issues I’m satisfied that that’s moving ahead at pace because when you’ve got 300 acres of land, you really do have to figure out where that fits into the community and how quickly we develop it. And that’s all part of the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan.

Q: You’ve said in the past that the media tends to inflate Whistler’s housing problems as a "crisis" situation. With a waitlist of 400 applicants, do you think there’s a crisis?

A: I suppose in a way it’s a matter of public perception more than anything. How do you say that 200 (applicants) is not a crisis but 400 (applicants) is a crisis? I think it’s a crisis when either people start to get impatient and they say "you know what, you politicians and you people at the housing authority, you’re not doing your job." When people get upset and unhappy, it becomes a crisis.

Or when we see it in an economic sense, when people start to leave town because of it. They want to own something and they’ve had it with waiting and they start to leave town, then we have a crisis. And I don’t think we’re there yet.

But if we don’t get going on this and do something, we’re going to be there because I think people are going to very quickly look and say "you guys have got a bunch of money and you’ve got land opportunities, you’ve got a bunch of people waiting, we’re upset. What are you going to do?"

I’m not prepared to call it a crisis but I’m concerned. We ought to be doing something. Five million dollars and land and a market of 400 people, there’s no excuse for not doing something.

Q: This council, when elected almost two years ago, promised to deliver 500 employee beds by the end of their term. How many do you think will be delivered in the next 14 months?

A: The answer at this point is: I have no idea.

And that’s part of the frustration I think on behalf of the housing authority and some councillors and the public… we’ve got a chair of the housing authority saying "I have no idea" when I could be saying "well we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that because we have the land and we have the money." We’ve just got to get on with it.

I think part of the problem is that the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan has taken so much of our time and so much of our energy and so much of our focus. There’s a clear feeling amongst council and staff that we’ve got to get that finished, we’ve got to get it off the table because there are other things that we’ve got to be dealing with. A really interesting question is: should the sustainability plan have taken that much time and energy? My personal view is that we could have done more and we can do more. Just because we’re working on a huge project like the sustainability plan doesn’t mean that we can’t be doing other things. There have been some practical constraints because we’ve had some empty seats at municipal hall. But now we’ve got those people. Those seats are full. We (still) don’t have a housing planner, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t contract that position.

And it’s time to get on with it.

Q: How do you envision the municipality delivering housing from now until the Olympics in 2010?

A: That’s an interesting question – that’s why we’ve been doing some of the research that we’ve been doing. Clearly there was a need for housing so clearly negotiating for a land bank was a good strategy, because it’s a huge advantage for the community to have a land bank, whether we use it all now or we use it over the next 100 years.

But… we’ve really got to think about this because if we continue to meet the demand between now and 2010, then is there going to be a demand in 2010 or are we going to build a bunch of permanent employee housing that there won’t be a market for? Or is it feasible to build no housing now and then flood the market in 2010? I don’t think that’s an alternative. And so the reason we’ve undertaken the research we have and that we’re still undertaking is to sort out exactly how we do this – how do we deliver housing between now and 2010 and then take advantage of the 2010 opportunity?

One way to do it might be to build some of… the athletes village before 2010. This isn’t a strategy that we’ve really kicked around but it seems feasible that we could build some housing and maybe we rent it until 2010 and we say to those people "look your rental tenancy is going to end on Dec. 31, 2009." And then… we use it for the Games and then it becomes a rental opportunity again, or maybe it becomes an ownership opportunity again. I don’t know. But what I do know is that we can’t just blindly build housing now and then think we’re going to build a bunch more housing in 2010.

It’s going to be a very interesting planning exercise to sort out how we meet our present demand and still take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Olympics…

(Another way to address the problem is) the (subdivision) policy that I’ve proposed.…. We think that if the policy that I’m proposing is adopted, that there’s somewhere between 20 and 100 people in the community who’re going to do the same thing and will have the potential to do the same thing.

( Davies currently has a proposal before council, which if approved, would see his Alpine Meadows residential lot subdivided into two lots, one as a market lot and the other with an employee restriction which requires that it be owned by an employee.)

Then there’s the opportunity with road ends (as identified in the housing report) and that sort of thing to create some homes.

And then we could look at a project type development. …If we’re going to do a project type development, it’s time to think out of the box and say to ourselves "OK, if we want to be a sustainable community, do we really need to build row townhouses where people pull right up to the front of their front door and parallel park?"

Q: The municipality has hired consultants to do a needs analysis of housing in Whistler. At the same time the WHA now has $5 million in its fund, there’s a 300-acre land bank for housing and the waitlist is the highest it’s ever been. Is there a will at municipal hall to provide the housing?

A: I think there’s a will in the hall. There’s certainly a will at council. And that’s demonstrated by some of the comments that we’re making around the council table about the fact that we need to get on with this….

At a staff level, staff is very anxious to get on with this and they are very anxious to get on with this in two senses. Many of our staff would like to have an ownership opportunity in the community they work in and so they are the types of people that could take advantage of the opportunities we’re talking about creating. So they’re anxious to get on with it in a personal sense.

And they’re anxious to get on with it because there’s a recognition in the hall that we’ve been focused on other things and it’s time to wrap that up, time to move on to some of the other priorities that are present.

You might (ask) was there political will in the hall six months ago?

I would argue that perhaps there wasn’t six months ago, that council wasn’t as focused on the housing issue as they should have been because we were too focused on other things. Staff wasn’t as focused on the housing issue because staff was too focused on other things and we had a shortage of staff. But I think that this is on everybody’s radar in a big way now.

Q: The athletes village in the Lower Cheakamus will take up less than 100 acres of the 300 acre land bank. Can you access the rest of the land bank at any time?

A: Sure. We haven’t optioned the land yet but what we’ve done is gone from one end of the valley to the other end of the valley and we’ve come up with a set of criteria in terms of slopes and parcel sizes and access to roads and schools and that sort of thing. And then what we’ve done is literally drawn red lines around any parcel that we might potentially consider optioning. And by that I mean any parcel that meets that criteria. …There’s a whole bunch of well placed, densely packed potential parcels up by Alpine. So OK, do we really want to double the size of Alpine? Or there are parcels down on Cheak South. So we want to put a bunch more housing down there? There are parcels scattered round the community. Do we want to do some smaller developments around the community? And with the studies that we’re doing in terms of demand and type, that’s what we’re trying to get to.

Once we sort that out we can start making some decisions and start exercising some options and if it makes planning sense, we can start building some stuff, or somebody can start building some stuff.

Q: You see a different kind of need for employee housing in Whistler, one that addresses the mid- to upper-management employee. Tell me how Whistler could address their needs.

A: It’s not that I want to expend public resources and create an opportunity for people who are already wealthy… But the concern I have is just looking at the market dynamics and what’s going on in that middle sector of our economy. There are primarily two people that occupy that sector. They’re either business people, and that includes professionals, consultants, or they’re middle- to upper-level management people. And the fundamental concern I have is that I talk to these people and I know that these people are looking around (and seeing opportunities in other communities). And if we allow this leakage to continue, yeah we might not see it in the next two or three years but I guarantee you that if we don’t do something to address this leakage, 20 years from now this community will be either single family homes that sit empty except when their absentee owners or their guests occupy them at one end of the spectrum and at the other end of the spectrum we’ll have people that occupy employee housing. And there will be nothing in between because all of these people will have left town because their properties will have become so valuable that the lure to simply cash out and go somewhere else and enjoy a darn nice lifestyle will become irresistible. And it’s already happened in other mountain communities.

The way we put a stop to it is to allow people that have parcels of property to pull some of their capital out and stay in the community.

If we don’t allow them to do that they’re going to pull their capital out and go to some other community….

At the moment, your average lawyer or doctor or businessperson in this town can’t afford to buy a million and a half-dollar tear-down and then build another house on it.

Q: Council has debated this issue of revisiting the $155 per square foot formula to deliver employee beds. Essentially what that means is that developers are charged with delivering the housing at a cost of $155 per square foot. Do you think this number should change and why?

A: This is something that we’ve been talking about at the housing authority (and) talking about with builders. …Where this (number) becomes critical is when we are trying to induce developers to deliver employee housing where they must at least recover the cost of that housing. For example, there are smaller parcels of land around where it would be worthwhile for a developer to apply for a rezoning and build some market housing and then build some other single family housing and then put it onto the market at cost. But if they’re forced to put it onto the market at significantly less than cost, it doesn’t make sense and the project goes nowhere. So then the question becomes, what does it really cost to build housing in that sort of scenario?

And we’ve approached that question at the housing authority in a very arbitrary basis. We had a board meeting and everybody sort of kicked around their idea of what the number should be and then we picked a number out of the air and I think it was $190 per square foot. It certainly wasn’t a very scientific approach…. My view is that clearly it costs more than $155 a foot and my personal view is that the minimum would be about $200 a foot…. The problem is if you try and force that price down what it does is it forces the developer to build a shoddy product. And what happens is when any of these products come onto the market and they’re new, they look great. They’ve got fresh paint, fresh carpets, fresh cabinets, everything looks really nice. And then five years or 10 years later they start to fall apart. And it would have made sense to give the developer another $20 a foot….

Q: What would you say to these 400 applicants on the waitlist who might be getting discouraged and may seriously be considering moving away from Whistler?

A: On a personal level all I can say is I’m doing my best…. I tend to say on council (that) this has got to be on our radar and I say to staff (that) this has got to be on our radar because then it gets it out in the public. … Hopefully council will become embarrassed about the fact that we haven’t moved as quickly as we could have….

I think council as a whole has to start acting more entrepreneurially. We talk about being an entrepreneurial organization. We don’t act in an entrepreneurial manner. We take far too long to make decisions and yes, we have to be careful but sometimes we take far more time than is necessary to make a decision with the appropriate level of care.

All I can do is to continue to push this issue. Certainly I think the inertia is broken at the housing authority. The housing authority is anxious to move ahead with some of these opportunities. We have more staff available and I hope that the inertia has been broken at council.

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