This fall employee housing has been discussed, debated, deflated, kicked around and finally deferred so that now the term has become defiled. Through it all a couple of fundamental questions seem to have been forgotten: what is employee housing and why do we need it?
Why not just accept that Whistler is too expensive for employees and have them all live in Squamish or Pemberton? Three people who quit decent jobs last week illustrate why. They probably could have found places in Squamish or Pemberton but they wanted to live in Whistler. When they found it impossible they decided to abandon the whole situation and move to another mountain town. Their employer is now shorthanded with little hope of filling the vacant positions.
The employee housing issue goes beyond the immediate and dramatic images of people living in vans and under saunas. What the lack of employee housing is doing, for those who still don’t see it as a problem that concerns them, is killing people’s hopes. When someone is denied the opportunity to live in a place that person is not going to have any commitment or feeling for the place. As a service-industry town Whistler lives and dies by its employees. But as a community Whistler needs to keep good people.
That’s not to say that the municipality or the housing society should provide taxpayer-funded dream homes for everyone who works here. A mix of employee housing is needed: apartment or dormitory style units for seasonal employees, a variety of townhomes for rent and purchase, and permanent, single family homes. Single family homes may be the most contentious part of the employee housing package, given the windfall profits some people have made on previous projects, but better mechanisms for controlling profits on re-sales are available. They must be explored because finding ways to build permanent homes for permanent residents is at the heart of the issue.
While limiting Whistler’s size is generally agreed as necessary to preserving the character of the valley and the resort it is also driving up the price of single family houses, from an average of $378,792 last year to $419,938 this year. What that does is kill the hopes and dreams of present Whistler residents, those who don’t own their own homes, of ever being able to do so. But aside from killing individuals’ dreams, if there is no mechanism for young people to become permanent residents of Whistler, the community will become stagnant. The only new blood coming into town will be the very wealthy and the retiring second home owners.
If Whistler is to grow as a community it must include a variety of people. That will require some new thinking, including going beyond the current ceiling on bed units.