While the rental market remains tight heading into winter, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) has done its part to add more beds for staff members ahead of the season.
The mountain operator has added an additional 181 beds to bring its total to 1,229 — a 16-per-cent increase over last year.
"Some of the beds came from increasing density in our buildings back to pre-Olympic levels. Single rooms that used to be doubles were converted back into doubles," explained Joel Chevalier, WB's VP of employee experience.
"Most critical to our plan was renting market houses in the valley. We have rented nine houses that will accommodate many of our returning staff who were looking for a place to live."
It's also important to note that the houses WB targeted were not being used as employee housing at the time, Chevalier said.
"We targeted houses that were being managed as vacation rental properties such as Airbnb, etc.," he said.
"This means that all of the 181 beds are new beds vs. displacing existing employees. We felt that this was important to make sure that our plans were supporting the entire community."
Jeff Normandeau was one of the lucky WB employees to land a staff house after spending much of the past two seasons in Glacier staff housing.
"It's extremely helpful," Normandeau said, adding that he's been considering getting out of WB staff housing to free up the beds for other workers but hasn't been able to find anything affordable.
"I have been looking at other stuff, but it's just absolutely outrageous, because as you know, some of us don't make a lot of money here," he said.
"I fortunately have started making a little bit more and working my butt off doing that, but (the rent is) just outrageous. Every time it's winter it seems like the houses just go up and up and up, and (WB) keeps the price reasonable and helps out the employees as much as they can."
Other employers, too, have taken it upon themselves to ease the financial burden of their employees.
Pepe Barajas, CEO of the Infinity Enterprises Group, has secured housing for employees for several years. This year, the business owner decided to expand his staff-housing inventory and saw immediate results, attracting qualified applicants from across the country.
"Definitely, having staff housing, it gives you that edge of becoming a more attractive employer," Barajas said.
Unfortunately for Barajas, one of his staff housing units was located in Alpine House, which burned to the ground on Nov. 10 (see related stories pages 13 and 14).
Some of Barajas' recent hires only took positions because he was able to offer them housing, Barajas said.
"The main reason why they took the job, because they had a few other interviews and they actually had other job offers, was that I was going to be able to provide them with accommodation," he said.
"So now we find ourselves with the responsibility to find accommodation for them, and it won't be at the same price, because right now it is very expensive out there."
The fire at Alpine House is especially difficult as it displaced mainly local workers, Barajas said. In total, 21 units were affected by the fire.
"Here we are talking about a lot of people that are homeless right now, that work here and they have a life here, so I think a lot of companies probably are helping all those employees finding a place to live," he said.
Barajas also wanted to thank the community for its support. The business owner said he posted about his six newly displaced employees on Facebook and the response was overwhelming.
"It is just unbelievable," Barajas said of the support. "I have never seen that anywhere else where I have lived, and I have travelled the world. So I'm really grateful that the community here are so helpful and so kind."
But as the rental market gets tighter and tighter, Chevalier is left wondering where all the beds have gone.
"In the last seven years the WHA has added close to 1,700 employee beds on to the market, (but) the employee population of Whistler may have only grown by 400 to 500 people. Given that there is a shortage of housing, this would indicate to me that there are 1,200 beds that have been created that aren't supporting our local workforce," Chevalier said.
"My belief is that the majority of these unused (by employees) beds exist in open market suites. I know that the WHA works very hard to supply these types of beds.
"(But) I think that some responsibility should fall on the business community to take steps to support their workforce with a place to live."
Val Litwin, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, said he feels Chevalier is "on the money" with his assertion that businesses have a responsibility to support workers — when financially possible.
"I think where businesses have the wherewithal to look at that, terrific. I think it should always be in consideration," Litwin said.
"But it's not economically viable necessarily for a small coffee shop to secure housing and pay for it... there's risk involved, so I don't think it's a slam dunk for every business, which is why I love the direction the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) is going with their proposed development down in Cheakamus. That's one of the ways we're going to solve this housing issue."
The proposed development — a $5.5 million, 100-bed employee rental apartment building — is currently moving through the zoning process at the municipality.
It's expected that people will be moving in by early 2017.
Currently, the WHA rental waitlist applicant numbers are 25 per cent higher for 2015 than they were last year. WHA rental housing is also experiencing fewer turnovers with zero vacancy in rental inventory at the moment.
"We... experience lots of people showing up at our offices seeking rental accommodations," WHA executive director Marla Zucht said in an email.
As for the new apartment building Zucht said: "At this time we have not yet determined the unit allocation
"Once we get further along with the project and know definite pricing and rental rates then we'll be contacting the business community for expressions of interest for the rental units in the new building for 2017."
Zucht said the WHA is "extremely pleased" about WB's effort to bring more beds online, as the new accommodation "will help to mitigate pressures related to access to housing for some of their workforce.
"Once again, WB is setting a great corporate example of helping to address and alleviate some challenges for their employees and improving opportunities to attract and retain employees for our resort community."
(See related feature on page 36.)