News » Whistler

We're working on it

by

comment

Members of the business community packed council chambers Tuesday to deliver a message about the desperate need for short term employee housing. And with people straining to hear from the hallway and stairway exits, council responded: we’re working on it.

Five speakers made presentations to council Tuesday, each emphasizing they were not there to endorse any particular housing project, acknowledging that the business community hasn’t been vocal enough on housing issues in the past, and making a point of applauding the past efforts of councils to create employee housing.

They also made the point that more needs to be done.

Horror stories about the living conditions some employees have to put up with were plentiful. One restaurant owner reported some of his staff lived in a house of 20 employees, each paying $700 a month rent. "I wasn’t sure whether to report the landlord or thank him," the restaurateur wrote to the chamber of commerce. Another business owner reported 11 women living in a two-bedroom unit.

David Campbell, representing the Commercial Core Committee told council: "The word is out, Whistler is no longer a fun place to live.

"There was a serious, extreme lack of employees this past winter," Campbell said. "In many cases anyone who came to the door was hired."

Campbell asked that affordable housing be given the same status as transportation and the environment in the municipality’s sustainability strategy.

Drew Meredith talked about the recent "mixed signals" from council, staff and the Whistler Housing Authority regarding the need for seasonal employee housing. After "the worst season ever," Meredith said it was no time for a palace revolt. "I’m here to support and encourage you to keep working to solve the affordable housing problem."

Meredith said the only private developer to ever build any rental employee housing in Whistler has been Whistler-Blackcomb. He also noted there are few sites left in Whistler suitable for employee housing.

"We must be pro-active rather than reactive," he said.

Tanya Ewasiuk, a chamber of commerce director, told council she felt the housing authority and council were underestimating the need for employee housing. Ewasiuk referred to a chamber survey this year which estimated Whistler was short more than 1,000 employee beds, and she suggested many employees are "dramatically underhoused."

Ron Hosner, representing the Creekside Merchants Association and the Whistler Food and Beverage Association, said it was his belief council and municipal staff were reaching a level of comfort on the employee housing issue.

"We disagree," Hosner said. "I believe we’re further away from solving the issue than we were five years ago when the housing authority was created."

Hosner emphasized the importance of seasonal housing for the long-term sustainability of the resort.

"We can’t have guests asking employees what it’s like to live in Whistler and them saying they don’t know because they can’t afford to live here."

Doug Forseth, senior manager for Whistler-Blackcomb, spoke about an "obvious misunderstanding on the need for housing" in the municipal staff report on the Whistler 3 project.

Forseth said: "As much as we need employee beds, I’m not an advocate for beds at any cost. But I encourage you to take a look at the needs. The business community hasn’t been at the table in the past; we are now."

Each council member then responded. Kristi Wells, chair of the Whistler Housing Authority, said the WHA will be releasing its business plan at the end of June. She made the point that housing authority’s original goal of housing 80 per cent of Whistler’s workforce within the municipality is probably not possible.

"We have to clarify our role," Wells said of the housing authority board. "We are not an elected authority to make decisions on individual projects. We have to be creative, using out-of-the-box thinking over the next couple of years.

"We also have to realize we will never solve the problem."

Wells referred to "capacity issues" in the valley.

Ken Melamed said he was moved by the level of concern expressed.

"I think if people see a reluctance of council to move ahead with the speed people want, that’s accurate. It doesn’t mean we’re treating the problem any less seriously."

But Melamed elicited calls of "shame, shame" when he said: "The solution we’ve chosen doesn’t seem to be working… We can’t build our way out of this problem."

He compared the employee housing situation to that of a highway, where the more lanes are constructed the more cars are on the road.

"We have 7,000 employees in private housing now. When those houses are torn down do we build 7,000 more employee bed units?" Melamed asked.

"The development cap is out of hand now," he said. "We need to work within the existing infrastructure. We need to uphold our principles. We can’t abandon our community plan."

Melamed said council was working on the employee housing situation but: "Since I’ve been on council it’s been one urgent employee housing need after another. We didn’t spend four years devising environmental strategies… (and other strategies) to throw it out the window to solve one problem."

Dave Kirk said Melamed’s comments were partially correct, and that the present and previous councils had done a good job recognizing the need for employee housing.

"We have spent the $6 million in the housing fund," Kirk said. "I would suggest we as the business community accept some responsibility. Are you prepared to invest out of your pockets, or are you going to wait for a private developer? That’s the challenge to the business community."

Ted Milner reiterated that council is "absolutely committed to employee housing, but nobody said anything before tonight."

Milner said Whistler was at a crossroads and has to be creative. The question is where and how to build employee housing.

"I think we need to sit down with the community, we need to do some talking."

Stephanie Sloan referred to the valley’s capacity issue and said: "We have to respect the cap. We have to respect the environment." She also called for town hall meetings to discuss a sustainability plan.

Nick Davies also challenged the business community, alluding to a John F. Kennedy’s quote and suggesting businesses and the chamber ask not what the municipality can do for them, but what they can do for the municipality.

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly had the final word and suggested there is "good news on the horizon. I think the Whistler 3 project will be back."

O’Reilly noted that with the recent change in provincial governments the municipality may get "new tools to meet some of the challenges." He also referred to the municipality’s recent work with Mount Currie and that with improvements to the bus system there will be greater employment opportunities for Mount Currie residents and Whistler businesses.

"As a community we’ve solved so many problems. We’ve played with the economic model, putting the cap on, and now we’re facing the consequences."

O’Reilly said it’s "been a lonely road for 12 years building employee housing." He said he hoped the employee housing fund can be replenished, through new financial tools provided in the Liberal government’s Community Charter, and the municipality can continue to work with landowners.

"Your message is clearly heard. We have to get immediate results, but we also have to stick with the plan," O’Reilly said.

 

Tuesday’s delegations and the packed council chambers were largely in response to concerns raised when Tim Regan’s Whistler 3 project was turned down at the April 30 council meeting.

On Wednesday, May 23, the municipality and Whistler Housing Authority board issued a joint statement "to clarify any misconceptions the public may have on the Whistler 3 comprehensive development strategy reviewed by council at their April 30 meeting…"

The release states that the development proposal was considered by council and staff and weighed against the planning principles and policies outlined in Whistler 2002, the official community plan, the comprehensive development plan, the comprehensive transportation strategy, the financial plan and the draft Whistler environmental strategy and did not meet the criteria set out in those documents.

The release also states the housing authority board did not endorse or support the final proposal presented to council on April 30.

"While resident restricted housing remains a high priority, the community has made significant inroads into housing requirements, with rental and ownership developments at 19 Mile Creek, Spruce Grove, Lorimer Court, Nesters Pond, Barnfield and the upcoming Beaver Flats. Thus far, 3,192 employee beds have been created, with 272 slated for completion this year in Beaver Flats, Nesters Square and the Intrawest development on Alta Lake Road," the municipality and housing authority state in the release.