Opinion » Maxed Out

The price of doing nothing is too high

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In the beginning... there was the bed cap. And it was good.

Actually, in the beginning there was chaos. It wasn't particularly good. It was so not good that had it continued there would be no Whistler today and the town would look like an overgrown Lumby. Perhaps, just speculating.

But then there was the Resort Municipality of Whistler. A new governmental entity. We were the first. And as with all such firsts, it — like life itself — has been a big experiment. Successful so far but an experiment nonetheless, fits and starts, ups and downs. Due to the powers granted resorts and the farsightedness of some of the first councillors, chaos, while not entirely eliminated, was reined in and given direction. It's important to remember what you see today was created through a fortunate blend of that foresight, chaos and experimentation. It didn't just spring forth from the valley or some grand master plan.

Somewhere along the line... came the bed cap. And it was good. Wasn't it?

The bed cap was created to keep Whistler from growing beyond the capacity of our narrow valley to support. It recognized you could only cram so many people and so many condos into a limited space. It was, and is, aspirational.

But it's a bit like the diet you're going to start next week or next month or just before ski/bikini season casts a harsh light on just how out of shape you are. The bed cap was a tangible mirage somewhere out in the future. Maybe, like a mirage, we'd never reach it. There were certainly times when it seemed out of reach.

And now? It seems like the end of a cul-de-sac we've entered. We're not there but we're starting to circle.

One of the inevitable results of reaching build out is a very harsh reality no one ever wanted to talk about when it was just a mirage. And everyone wants to talk about now that we know it's real.

When the mayor, who started life in Whistler as a squatter, sells her house one of these days, she won't be selling it to someone working in town. When the former mayor, a ski patroller and mason, sells his house, he won't be selling it to someone working in town. When all the aging hippie-jocks who've been here since the 1970s, who've worked their adult lives as mountain employees, servers in restaurants, small businessfolk, nurses, doctors, firefolk, muni employees, sell the homes they've owned for decades, they won't be selling them to people doing those same jobs.

With the exception of a few people lucky enough to have been born wealthy or industriousness enough to start a successful business, the market homes in Whistler will never again be purchased by people who work here and, well, stay here working!

They'll be snapped up by investors — foreign and domestic — for whom they're lines on a balance sheet and buildings they visit every now and then. They'll be purchased by retirees from elsewhere who've cashed out and find Whistler a welcome lifestyle refuge. They'll be third, fourth, fifth houses owned by wealthy people who buy homes the way the rest of us buy socks or shoes... except we'll use our socks and shoes, they'll just collect their next home.

And where, exactly, will that leave the resort town that depends on year-around and seasonal workerbees? Right where we are now. Except several orders of magnitude worse.

Or... we might become the resort town that used to be but is now a dark, empty retirement enclave.

What we won't be is a vibrant, lively town with lots of opportunity and a potentially great future.

The math is pretty simple. We see it at work already. You take a limited supply and a greater demand and you end up with higher prices. That we haven't actually reached build out yet should be a warning for how much worse it's going to get when we do. Now add the Vail Resorts cachet and marketing to the mix and, though I'm not a betting man, I'd be willing to bet we're going to see a rapid increase in property values, particularly at the higher end.

It's inevitable. Or is it?

If nothing is done, it is inevitable. So the question is, what can be done?

Before I describe a few options, let's recognize Whistler is a resort. We owe much of our success to the fact we have resort lands with lots of strata-titled properties owned by investors from everywhere. And we have residential neighbourhoods outside the resort lands filled with market housing and resident-restricted housing. All of the options that follow should only be considered as applicable to non-restricted market housing. Not resort land developments.

The simplest is a non-resident, foreign purchaser tax. You want to buy a market house in a residential neighbourhood, you pay the tax. How much? Pick a number. In Sri Lanka there's a 100 per cent tax on foreign purchasers, effectively doubling the price. In Vancouver, not so much.

If you wanted to ratchet that up, you could simply ban non-residents from purchasing market housing. How un-Canadian! Well, on PEI, non-residents need permission to buy more than five acres. In Saskatchewan they can't buy properties over 10 acres. So a total ban isn't impossible.

We're told one of the reasons Whistler wants to house 75 per cent of employees within the RMOW's boundaries is because a town where employees live is a more vibrant, animated, lively town. Well, then, how about a substantial non-resident tax on market homes? If you don't live in your home, in this town, you pay a much higher property tax. How long do you have to live in the home? Pick a number: six months plus a day; seven, eight? Homes that sit vacant for much of the year are empty space where families could live, work and contribute to the town's success.

Limit the size of homes. Wealthy people by and large don't want small homes. They want McMansions. Zoning currently limits the size of homes based on the size of lots. Nothing says they couldn't also carry an upper limit. Want to build larger than, say, 5,000 square feet? Look somewhere else. Smaller homes in the same space mean more homes.

Encourage — financial/tax incentives — rental suites in homes. This used to be almost the norm in Whistler. No longer. Of course, this goes hand in hand with cracking down on illegal nightly, rentals.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for any of these things to happen. I'm certain any of them would result in ear-splitting screaming from homeowners whose property would go down in value. Surely, as well, there'd be plenty of litigation to keep lawyers busy.

But the price of doing nothing is, perhaps, a dystopian future. Now is the time to decide.

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