So, the race is on.
In the middle of the Untied States, in what is now Oklahoma, the land was ripe for the taking in 1889. Nearly two million acres was largely unpopulated. It was unpopulated because the U.S. government had passed an enlightened piece of legislation called, touchingly, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which allowed for the forced relocation of Cherokees, Choctaws, Cheyenne Seminole and other tribes.
On April 22, 1889, land-hungry settlers-to-be rushed into what were termed the Unassigned Lands and staked out how ever much they thought they could defend from others with the same ideas. In the years that followed, they ploughed under the native grasslands and farmed the heck out of the land. Their efforts were rewarded by the famous dust storms that eventually drove their grandchildren west and laid the groundwork for one of the finest and most horrifying novels in the English language, The Grapes of Wrath.
Canadian history is only somewhat more enlightened. Having nudged out Assiniboine, Sioux, Métis and others, Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, brought Canada's homestead act into being as a way to fill the rich farmlands of the prairies. The act offered 160 acres of prime land to any man over 18 willing to settle, farm and improve the land. Advertised to land-starved Europeans and facilitated by the railroad, the land supposedly dripped with clean water, abundant wood, gold, silver and, for all we know, 72 virgins. Imagine the surprise when the first settlers landed, couldn't see a tree anywhere in sight, watched their dogs run away for three days and were reduced to living in sod houses. But hey, land's land.
Except in Whistler where there isn't much land. But in Whistler, bed units are bed units and any scheme, no matter how ill-conceived, that offers bed units will start a land rush that would have made Cliff Sifton proud.
Enter the Mayor's Task Force on Employee Housing report.
The land rush part of that report is the section that hopes to find a partial solution to Tiny Town's chronic problem with housing the very necessary workerbees, that keep the town running and the tourists happy and fed, by encouraging private developers to turn unutilized parcels of private land into employee housing. What could be wrong with that?
At the public forum held last fall, the report was roundly applauded. As seems to be referred to frequently in RMOW reports, it enjoyed widespread community acceptance. So widespread in fact, those few voices expressing concern about its very scanty details regarding exactly how such private developments might work were criticized and ignored. Don't ask how I know this.
Fortunately, the land rush was blunted when the first development proposal that came in, literally days after the public forum, was so obviously fraught with major flaws—among them being unaffordable, too dense, located at the end of a dead-end residential road—it brought the entire initiative to a grinding halt when a sizeable turn out of concerned Whistleratics expressed their concerns at a public meeting. The RMOW responded, and should be patted on the back, by deciding they'd receive and consider all private development proposals before they made any decisions regarding which ones to back.
And now they have.
I've frequently wondered how widespread public support for this element of the Task Force's report might have been had the assembled citizenry at the public forum been appraised of the Nordic proposal—Garibaldi Way—at the time. I suspect the enthusiasm may have been blunted. Of course, I wonder how much we would have needed to even consider private development had the RMOW been more willing to embrace the recommendations of the board of Whistler 2020 Development Corp., and just get on with building in Cheakamus when that option was being advocated.
So we've got some old friends in the running and some we know virtually nothing about. The Zen lands are back. Gone is the pretence of opening Whistler U and in its place is a proposal to develop 496 dwelling units gobbling up 1,004 bed units! While there were those who thought that housing was the real push behind the university, at least we're looking at something straight forward now.
There's still the 74 apartments (222 bed units) on Garibaldi Way, no word on how or whether the proponents have modified the proposal to address the myriad concerns expressed by residents.
Another sizable proposal north of Rainbow would build 150 dwellings and require 354 bed units.
Scrolling through the proposals one thing is perfectly clear: developers, whether they own the land they're pitching or have an option on it, see profit to be made from building employee housing. Let's be perfectly clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with that and I have long worked with developers and respect—for the most part—what they do. If they didn't do it, you wouldn't have anywhere to live, work or shop.
But none of these proposals are driven by altruism. If they didn't make sense financially they wouldn't be up for consideration. And if they make sense financially, they have to make more sense than whatever is currently allowed by zoning for the lands in question. In other words, the developers behind these proposals stand to be further ahead, in the long run, receiving bed units and building employee housing than they'd be building whatever is currently allowed on these parcels.
So, if the RMOW is facilitating this gain by providing bed units and, where necessary, rezoning, there should be reasonable strings attached. And limiting the housing to employees is not enough.
I—and I'm not alone in this—consider three conditions non-negotiable for any private development of employee housing that requires an injection of bed units. First, they have to be affordable. Not affordable by massaging the definition of that word beyond recognition, but affordable as per the guidelines and practices of the Whistler Housing Authority. None of this $3/square foot nonsense.
Second, all units developed have to be rented to individuals currently on the WHA waitlist. If the RMOW is going to be involved—and granting bed units is a big involvement—we shouldn't tolerate two classes of employees: those who are on and have been on the waitlist and those who may jump the queue by dint of having an employer willing to rent units on behalf of their employees. We don't have two classes of employees in Whistler; we have one.
Finally, increases in rental rates should be established by WHA, according to their guidelines, not the province's Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB). Currently, WHA's rent increases track just under half that allowed by RTB. If you want to see something become quickly unaffordable, keep jacking it up four per cent—or more—each year. Not even RMOW employees enjoy four per cent pay increases.
So the rush is on, the lines are drawn. It'll be interesting to see how the dust settles.