Opinion » Maxed Out

Think outside box on housing


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It's been a week since, well, you know. That unpleasantness south of the border. I've quickly moved into the seventh stage of grief although I've had to modify it to drop the whole hope thing. I can do acceptance without hope and, heck, even acceptance coexisting with depression, the fourth stage. It helps that the election of The Orange One has added several rings to my expanding version of Dante's Hell, one for him alone where he'll spend eternity with absolutely no one to impress or tell him what a great guy he is, one neck-deep in BS for his supporters, one a bit deeper for the five-million-plus people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but didn't bother to show up this time, one for the petulant Bernie Sanders supporters who sucked their collective thumb and either didn't vote or voted for third-party candidates, and one for the folks who believed either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein made sense. There are more but Hell's getting pretty crowded so I'll leave it at that.

And it's not particularly soothing to wonder how Prime Minister Pipeline went from casting the illusion of greenishness to oozing a slippery, oily sheen everywhere he goes.

Alas, Christy Clark's shenanigans turned me off provincial politics a long time ago.

That leaves, let's see, local politics. I'm sure Mayor Nancy is thrilled to read that sentence. Really though, thinking globally... or nationally... or continentally is enough to spawn a tsunami of alcohol binges. And hangovers are getting harder and taking longer to recover from, so local it is.

In what I knew was a pointless exercise, I recently tossed my name into the running for the RMOW's task force on housing. Pointless because I knew the selection process was rigg... NOOOOOO! Dammit, that Trumpocalypse crap has a nasty way of sneaking into my thoughts. Must medicate.

Ah, that's better. Where was I? Oh yeah, the RMOW task force on housing. Great idea. Fully supportive. Couldn't be a better group of folks. Your concerns are my concerns.

So here are a few ideas I might have floated had I been invited to the party.

I suppose it's useless to say I believe there's a threshold step we — Whistler — should be taking before we begin examining ways to mitigate our housing shortfall. But I'm pretty good at useless so I'll say it anyway. Before we rush into building more employee housing, whether it's our money or the very generous $2 million the feds gave us, maybe it's a good time to revisit that whole bed cap, limits to growth thing. I know that doesn't have a lot of supporters around the Hall but many of us are feeling a bit crowded and gridlocked these days so I'll ask the question: is there still a bed cap? Anyone know what that number is? I know it doesn't include employee-restricted housing but heck, even slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person back in the day. Shouldn't employee-restricted housing be factored into the equation somewhere? After all, employees drive cars, flush toilets, have lives outside their servitude; they may not be as important as those who can afford market homes but shouldn't we count for something in the overall picture of how big is too big?

But that thinking doesn't alleviate our current housing crunch. Employees are here; more are coming. There are jobs that need filled and there aren't nearly enough places for them to live. It doesn't take a genius to look at the current WHA waitlist for rentals and understand we need to get building. Imagine how big that waitlist would be if there were more rental units and people who are underhoused were willing to sign up... which they aren't now because they know they won't live long enough to rise to the top of the list.

But imagine how cheated those who are on the waitlist feel when they hear talk of new units being earmarked for businesses to slip their employees to the front of the line. That talk's being talked. And it has support.

So here are some ideas.

Build rental housing. No brainer. We have the land — how do you spell Olympic Legacy? We have the guaranteed cashflow from rentals to more than service mortgages. We can include seniors' rentals in that mix; after all, why segregate seniors? We can borrow construction funding from the Municipal Finance Authority at historically low rates. Build, baby, build.

Oh, and if you want to placate businesses that want guaranteed access, here's a thought: Make 'em pay. How? Business bonds. We have no qualms about asking the economically less privileged among us — people who purchase WHA housing — to use their indebtedness to fund Whistler's social infrastructure. Why wouldn't we ask businesses to do the same to house their employees?

Business bonds would be their buy-in, their catapult to the head of the line, their skin in the game. For, say, $20,000 to $25,000, a Whistler business could buy the right to rent a WHA rental unit for their employees. Note the word for. That bond would have a coupon rate commensurate with a relatively risk-free government bond, say, 1.5 per cent. Just for illustration, the yield on a BC Municipal Finance Authority bond maturing in three years is just over one per cent. The coupon — interest — would be paid from the rental cashflow. The bond itself could be sold through the WHA to another Whistler business, assuming there was a secondary market. Businesses are invested, earn a small return and secure housing they can in turn use for their employees per WHA guidelines on rent and occupancy. No gouging; no stuffing eight employees in housing designed for two, or four, or whatever.

There are those who are uncomfortable linking housing to employment. I share their discomfort. So here are two thoughts, call them social engineering if you want. The first is a human decency covenant. No kicking someone out of their housing with 24 hours' notice because they lost their job. Who would do such a thing? Employees housed in these units would have ________ to vacate in the event their employment is terminated. Fill in the blank — two weeks, one month?

And to both avoid exploitative employers jumping on this program and to foster a more liveable town, why not make this program available only to employers who agree to pay employees — all employees — a living wage? We know what a living wage for Whistler is, the Whistler Centre for Sustainability has done extensive work on this issue. It's around $16/hour for a single person.

So there are a few thoughts to kick around. Let's see who kicks.