With housing dominating the community discussion in recent weeks, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is now looking to find some answers.
At the Sept. 20 council meeting, Acting Mayor Jen Ford announced that council has directed staff to come forward in the coming weeks with additional recommendations around housing.
"There's a lot of suggestions out there that we've heard through comments from the business community, comments from individuals, to each of us and to the mayor on a daily basis," Ford said after the meeting.
"And so we want to put them all together and see what's workable and what we can do short term and what we can kind of look at medium term."
Asked why affordable housing wasn't given more preference in this year's budget planning, Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey pointed to initiatives like the $1.2 million set aside for the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) building going up in Cheakamus Crossing and the Tourist Accommodation Review.
"I guess if you go back a number of years ago, say around 2011 or 2012, the direction was, 'let's be open for business, let's see what economic growth we can generate,' and we've been successful with that with our partners," Furey said.
"(The problems with) the housing and traffic... came with that, so we're now looking at that demand, but it was hard to know. We basically didn't realize how successful we were going to be, and now we're dealing with that success through the transit and housing initiatives."
Whistler council meetings have typically been devoid of public commenters as of late, but the Sept. 20 meeting kicked off with a question about Whistler's ongoing housing troubles from Wolfgang Lindemann, of Tamarisk.
"Well, formerly Tamarisk," Lindemann said. "The landlord asked us to leave because they needed to use the property."
Lindemann went on to ask council a number of questions regarding its willingness to solve the crisis, where the money for solutions will come from and if a town hall meeting will be held to share ideas, before closing with some favourite questions of deceased U.K. politician Tony Benn.
"He said, 'if you want to see what kind of democracy your rulers are creating, ask these questions,'" Lindemann said.
"What powers do you have? How did you get these powers? And what do you do with these powers in serving the community?" he asked.
"And the last question is: how can we get rid of you?"
EMPLOYER HOUSING NEEDS ASSESSMENT PRESENTED
The talk around housing was timely, as WHA general manager Marla Zucht was on hand for the Sept. 20 meeting to present the 2016 Employer Housing Needs Assessment (EHNA).
As part of her presentation, Zucht talked about WHA housing initiatives currently underway, most notably the new building on Cloudburst Drive and the resident restricted units above the Rainbow commercial plaza.
"The combination of those two projects will be bringing on 200 new rental beds for our labour force in Whistler," Zucht said.
"We are (also) continuing to look at new sites for additional resident restricted housing developments — we're exploring the opportunity to move forward on an adjacent site in Cheakamus Crossing beside our current building that's under construction."
The WHA is also working with the RMOW to find ways to encourage more rental options in the existing housing stock and curb illegal nightly rentals, and the two will co-host a workshop on tenant rights and landlord responsibilities this fall, Zucht said.
But staffing troubles for Whistler businesses will likely continue into the winter, if recent trends are any indication.
The workforce is growing, but the number of employers able to fully staff their businesses is on a slow decline, according to the EHNA.
Whistler's workforce is expected to grow from about 14,500 last winter to a projected total of about 15,000 this year — an increase of 3.2 per cent.
The workforce is expected to include 13,600 full-time positions and 1,400 full-time equivalent positions.
Just 65 per cent of businesses were able to achieve full staffing levels last winter — down from 83 per cent the year before and 95 per cent in 2013.
Just over 11,100 employees (about 76 per cent of the workforce) lived in Whistler last season — about 700 more than the 10,400 who lived in local boundaries in 2014/15.
But the number of employers offering housing for workers is on the rise — from 13 per cent in 2014/15 to 21 per cent in 2015/16. A total of 109 businesses now provide staff housing in Whistler, to the tune of 3,000 beds.
Though 618 businesses were targeted for the survey, just 212 completed it — a response rate of 34 per cent.
The businesses surveyed, however, represented about 78 per cent of Whistler's workforce last winter.
The full report will be posted to www.whistlerhousing.ca.
EMPLOYERS LOOK TO EXPAND HOUSING OFFERINGS IN TIGHT MARKET
Whistler Blackcomb (WB) is one of those that has increased its number of employee beds in recent years.
The mountain operator will have 1,184 beds in staff housing this winter, and another 75 spread across houses in the valley.
Joel Chevalier, WB's vice president of employee experience, said the company has increased its housing inventory from eight to 12 homes this winter.
Last year was the first since the 2010 Olympics that WB has been in the valley housing market, Chevalier said, and when the company made the decision to seek out houses, they looked for landlords that were in the short-term rental market.
"We've been able to secure those back onto the long-term rental market, and (we're) trying our best to target homes that are not displacing other employees," he said.
"And that's been the challenge, because landlords aren't always fully open with us, but for the majority of the houses we've been focused on homes that are not displacing employees."
In at least one case, however, a local worker and his roomates, not employed by WB — who later took to the Whistler Summer Facebook group to start a discussion — were "priced-out" of their lease by the company, but Chevalier said that was never the intent.
"We put a call out to the community to see who is interested and what kind of inventory was out there, and then landlords and property managers have been approaching us and saying 'here's my house, here's what the lease cost will be per month," he said.
"We haven't actually been going to landlords and saying 'what are you getting? We'll pay you more.' We haven't been focused on that, and it's unfortunate if that's how it's worked out in one or two cases... we'll have to go and figure that out, but that hasn't been the target."
With just over 4,000 people on staff for the upcoming winter, WB is the town's biggest employer, but the hotels make up another good chunk of the workforce.
While some hotels offer limited accommodation — the Fairmont leases staff housing beds from WB, for instance — most hotels don't guarantee employee housing, said Saad Hasan, chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler.
"Certainly (employee housing) is very much on the radar. Now the question is how best we can do that," Hasan said, adding that some hotels have dabbled in housing rentals in the past, but not on a consistent basis.
"In the past we really relied on our bedroom communities like Squamish and Pemberton, but you can see Squamish and Pemberton now also getting quite expensive, and there's not much rental there either," he said.
"Going forward, that will be one of the discussions we'll have, is how do we deal with this, particularly as we start looking more and more at the transient, short-term employees."
Long-term solutions to Whistler's current housing challenges likely won't come easy — a thought repeated by nearly every stakeholder at the table.
"There is no one solution to this community issue. It will require a multi-faceted approach by a variety of organizations and community members," Ford said at the council meeting.
"In the meantime I would encourage anyone who has a suite to rent it, and should you have any ideas we may not have already heard, please send them to council... We appreciate the urgency around this issue in the community and it is a top priority."
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