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WHA plan calls for 1,000 new employee beds by 2005

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Through 20 years of building employee housing, every project has come about differently

In the battle to house the bulk of its workers Whistler is still holding relatively strong according to Tim Wake, general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority.

In recent years the total Whistler workforce during the winter season has risen steadily, to roughly 14,200 people in the 2001/02 season.

In the meantime the number of workers living in the resort has stayed roughly the same, at around 10,500 people. This trend is echoed in the figures from the winter of 2002/03, which have yet to be made public said Wake.

"(This) suggests that the current rate at which we’re creating restricted housing opportunities is compensating for the housing that we’re losing in the market," said Wake.

And yet, every day at least two applications, complete with pre-approved mortgages, are added to the growing WHA wait list for resident-restricted housing.

At Tuesday’s council meeting Wake presented the WHA’s Business Plan 2003-2007.

Among the highlights of the plan was the WHA’s commitment to deliver almost 1,000 new employee beds by the fall of 2005. Half are from projects that have been approved but not built and the other half are from projects in the pipeline waiting for approval.

To reach this end, Wake said the WHA must work very closely with the private sector to deliver the housing and encourage the creation of employee housing with all new rezonings.

"I think everyone understands now that you’re not going to get any zoning without community benefits and one of the principle community benefits that council raises, usually the first one, is housing," said Wake at an earlier meeting.

But Councillor Ken Melamed said this is only part of the solution. He said the WHA Business Plan does not effectively address other solutions to stem the tide of people cashing out and moving on. This bleeding of market housing is putting more and more pressure on restricted housing.

He suggested the WHA should be looking at more ways to protect the existing stock of market housing, developing strategies to address tear downs and upsizing, both of which are affecting employee housing.

There is still no true figure representing how much market housing is lost each year; there’s only a notion that things are changing in the marketplace. WHA estimates point to roughly 100 employee beds disappearing each year.

Wake said the WHA has been given a $10,000 grant to look at the bleeding of the market housing and gain a more accurate picture of what’s actually going on.

Melamed said the WHA should also be looking at ways to replenish the Housing Fund so that there’s money in the coffers to build housing in the future.

He suggested investing a small portion of tax dollars into the fund.

"I don’t have all the solutions of course," said Melamed.

"Nobody does."

Melamed said he would not support the current business plan because it does not go far enough in addressing concerns about the existing infrastructure.

Even though it has been more than 20 years since the first employee-restricted project was built, there is still no set formula to how Whistler gets its employee housing. Each project evolves in its own way as deals get massaged.

"Every deal is different," said Wake.

"If we look back at our significant housing projects, and by that I would mean Millar’s Ridge, Spruce Grove, 19 Mile Creek, Seppo’s Way and Spring Creek... they’ve all come about differently. And Nita Lake was different again.

"The thing that we don’t have is a clear road map of (working out) how much benefit for how much development... because there’s no proper measure of what the development benefit is."

Through his travels to other resorts, Wake has developed a rough formula that could be used to work out the value of employee housing with each commercial land deal. Employee housing should be a percentage of the Gross Floor Area of any project.

"One of the things I’ve suggested for future neighbourhoods is we could consider something quite simple like 20 per cent of the developable GFA needs to be dedicated as employee restricted," said Wake.

"It would give you a line in the sand, a starting point for that negotiation. And it would ensure that everything that got built also generated employee housing and that’s really what we need to do."

From a developer’s perspective David Ehrhardt, who has worked on three Whistler employee housing developments, said a formula for employee housing would be very helpful.

"I think that if there were a more clear cut set of rules or program or formula that was being used it would be less confusing for the public to understand and follow," he said.

"But it’s uncharted waters and something that hasn’t been done, but likely would make life a whole lot easier for everyone."

Ehrhardt is a principle in the Nita Lake Lodge development project, Whistler’s latest commercial development in the works.

Along with a lodge and a train station on the shores of Nita Lake, the development deal also includes a number of community benefits. Among those benefits are two new sites of employee housing, one with 44 townhouse units on the west side of Nita Lake, the other with 22 units in two apartments on the edge of the Alpha Creek wetlands.

Though there was some opposition to the project, Ehrhardt said he believes the bulk of the community understands the concept of exchanging benefits for rezoning land. It’s a methodology that’s been used in Whistler for years, he said.

"It’s nothing new and it’s a win-win situation," he said.

Wake agrees that there is a long history in Whistler of community amenities being required with development.

In the past, as the resort tried to focus on becoming a four-season destination, many of those amenities were "recreational amenities" like golf courses. Over the years those amenities have changed to "community amenities" – primarily employee housing.

Wake used two employee housing projects to illustrate his point.

Three years ago developers wanted to build homes on Treetop Lane behind Nesters.

They could only get the rezoning on that land if they included two apartment buildings for the employee housing pool as part of the deal. Every second house on the street also had to have a mandatory employee suite.

Wake recalls there was strong opposition to the whole concept.

"They didn’t want anything in their backyard but they especially didn’t want disruptive employee housing," he said.

Still the municipality ploughed ahead and created a successful project with employee housing beside upscale homes.

Amenities were also used as leverage for Intrawest’s large development plan for the Creekside area and south.

In order to get rezoning to develop at Taluswood, Kadenwood and Spring Creek, Intrawest kicked in a host of community benefits. Among the benefits were roughly 140 employee housing units at Spring Creek, a school site, firehall site, daycare and Valley Trail connections, among other things.

"To suggest that we’ve given away the farm or given Intrawest this huge benefit without receiving the benefit ourselves, I think is unfair," said Wake.

"In the end what is comes down to is we want to make a deal that’s fair to the community and fair to the developer."

And now the inventory sits at just under 4,000 employee-restricted beds. There more opportunities on the horizon, both in preserving the market stock and in creating brand new stock.

"There are probably a dozen sites that are in play," said Wake.

Among the targeted sites are the Public Works Yard, Parking Lots 1-4 and the Olympic Land Bank. There is also private land identified for potential employee housing like the Boot Pub, Mons West and the BC Rail Lands.

"They all have significant challenges but could potentially be developed with employee housing if they were able to get development rights," said Wake.

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