The Housing Sweepstakes
Changing demographics, increasing demands raise new questions about employee housing
By Bob Barnett
The words are enough to make many Whistler veterans’ eyes glaze over, the issue has been raised so many times and so little has changed. Still, "employee housing" may be preferable to the oxymoronic "affordable housing."
Despite the recent approval of projects like Millar’s Pond, Gondola 6, Whistler Mountain’s project at Twin Lakes and Barnfield Farm, employee housing will be an issue again this fall, as seasonal employees and first-year Whistlerites try to find a place for the winter. But the pace and scale of the problem appears to have taken on a new dimension in the past couple of years.
The evidence to date is mostly anecdotal, but indications are the demographic profile of people looking for affordable housing is changing. Whistler employees are no longer just stereotypical service sector workers. They are entrepreneurs, artists, teachers and professionals. And because of their greater numbers they are driving up the price of the limited amount of employee housing available.
o the price of one- and three-bedroom units in Eva Lake Village has gone up at least 25 per cent from 1995 to 1996, after seeing single-digit increases for several years. The one single family lot sold in Millar’s Pond this year is also up 25 per cent over last year.
o older, traditionally less expensive but unrestricted condominiums have also increased substantially in price in the last year.
o More than 700 people entered the lottery for the 85 restricted units at Millar’s Pond Lot 1.
Rick Smith, principal of the new Whistler Secondary, which opens in September, has other evidence. He lost a couple of prize applicants for teaching positions because they simply couldn’t afford to live in Whistler.
"As it is our vice-principal and librarian can’t afford Whistler. They’ve both found homes in Pemberton," Smith says.
"I’m really disappointed. I would really like to have our staff living here in the community."
The municipal monitoring program doesn’t have many numbers for 1996 yet, but the indications over the last few years are that Whistler’s resident population is ageing, settling down and starting families and becoming more affluent, although the average market price of single family homes — more than $400,000 in 1995 — is still beyond most of their means.
According to the 1995 Whistler Community Survey, the percentage of residents making more than $50,000 has increased from 49.2 per cent in 1991 to 58.2 per cent last year. More than 70 per cent of residents (including second homeowners) are now married or equivalent and 42.9 per cent of residents (including second homeowners) have a university degree.
The change in demographics in recent years is partly a factor of Whistler’s maturing as a community.
"Community facilities are drawing people here, as well as keeping people here," says Caroline Hicks of the municipality’s Planning Department.
The recreation centre, transit system, and more parks, trails and recreational opportunities have all helped persuade residents that Whistler would be a good place to make their permanent home and perhaps raise a family. But one of the biggest factors in keeping families and attracting new families to Whistler is the new high school. Whistler’s high school-age population increased nearly 60 per cent between September 1994 and September 1995, when the high school was originally intended to open.
Of course, that influx of families has had an impact on housing. What it’s done for some is push the Whistler market right out of sight and forced them to move out of town. According to a Whistler Resort Association survey in February, nearly 1,100 people now live in Squamish or Pemberton and commute to work in Whistler.
Those people aren’t looking for the staff accommodation that Whistler and Blackcomb have built and are building for their employees. The demand, according to market trends, seems to be for two- and three-bedroom condominiums, like the Millar’s Pond project. Many people are also expecting a rush for the Barnfield Farm and Greenside/Whistler Campground single family lots.
The demand is driven in part by the growing number of families in town, but probably also by the fear among many that if they don’t get into the Whistler market now they’ll have missed their chance. After the Barnfield and Greenside projects what will be left in the way of affordable, single family housing?
The Whistler Valley Housing Society may not have a specific answer yet, but it’s working on it. The big issue is acquiring land.
Max Kirkpatrick, chairman of the WVHS, says the society will be having some consulting work done over the next three or four months to draw up an inventory and wish list of land that may be suitable for employee housing. The list will include privately held land as well as Crown land.
"That’s what the employee housing fund will be used for, acquiring land and providing servicing," Kirkpatrick says.
About $4 million has been paid into the fund by developers, based on the number of permanent jobs their developments have created.
Although a number of large parcels of privately held land exist throughout the valley, both Kirkpatrick and Mayor Ted Nebbeling feel the society will eventually have to seek Crown land for future employee housing developments; a bench south of Emerald Estates, a parcel at the end of Valley Drive in Alpine Meadows and the lower Callaghan Valley are most frequently mentioned. The problem is B.C. Lands doesn’t have a policy in place to allow the sale of land for residential housing at less than market value.
"We can make land available for maintenance facilities, parks, schools etc., but not for affordable housing," says Don Van Der Horst of B.C. Lands. He adds, Whistler’s perpetual request for Crown land for affordable housing is unique; there aren’t any other municipalities asking for land for housing.
But Kirkpatrick asks, "What is market value? The land doesn’t have any market value until the municipality grants some development rights."
Nebbeling feels it will take a creative approach, doing an inventory of community needs, of land available and of development rights that are available, and coming up with some sort of deal to create more affordable housing.
In the meantime some families and professionals are waiting to see if they win the lottery and a chance to buy into Barnfield Farm or another project. If they do they will stay in Whistler. If they don’t they may have to move elsewhere.
That’s a gamble residents are willing to take, but it’s too much to ask of someone moving to Whistler to take a job. As Principal Smith says when asked if the teachers who turned down Whistler jobs considered the possibility of the lot lottery: "People can’t come here based on a ‘perhaps’."