Let's do the math on building more employee housing 

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Sometimes the mail, e or otherwise, brings inspiration. Were it always thus.

Dear Max:

I'm a little conflicted by last week's "Maxed Out." Not the part about the soccer field, although I would have expected you to call it the Soccer Mahal, but about having the RMOW build more affordable rental housing.

On the one hand, I'm a business owner and it would be nice to not have staff quit because they're tired of paying too much of their wages in rent. I like the Chamber's idea of letting businesses sign up to get places for their employees.

On the other hand, I'm looking for a tenant in my one-bedroom suite. The last time WHA brought a lot of new places online I had to drop my rent by almost $500 because suddenly so many people moved into the Athletes' Village.

Anyway, it doesn't matter what I think. You're going to write what you want. But if you hear of anyone, a quiet single or couple, I've got a great place for rent for $1,800/mo.


Concerned Business Owner

Concerned Business Owner wasn't the real name of my correspondent but I'm not in the business of calling someone out, unless, of course, they're a public person.

But therein seems to lie so much of the current employee-affordable, housing-best interest of the community conundrum. Employer needs a stable, fully-staffed workforce. Workforce needs a place to live that doesn't eat up 50 per cent or more of their after-tax income. The community needs to keep businesses humming to please the tourists we spend so much time and effort luring to Tiny Town. We need them because we built too many beds and need to reach some mythical occupancy target. Others in the community need to charge, I believe the technical term is a shitload, of rent because that's the only way they can a) make their mortgage work and/or b) buy papa a new pair of skis.

What I was perhaps too tactful to ask my confused correspondent was whether he/she paid his/her employees $81,000 per year. Why $81,000? According to the 2015 tax rates for Canada and B.C., someone would have to make that much — assuming a modest $5,000 RSP contribution — to have an after-tax income of around $64,800. Why $64,800? Because that's how much someone would have to earn to pay $21,600 per year in rent, if that someone were to fall within the generally accepted guidelines of spending no more than one-third of one's income on housing. $21,600 neatly works out to my correspondent's $1,800 per month, assuming for that nosebleed amount he/she wasn't also charging for utilities.

Maybe it wasn't tact. Maybe it was my assumption not everyone has the same rich enjoyment of irony I have that kept me from asking the question.

But maybe that guideline has no place in Whistler. After all, more than half — 52 per cent, according to WHA — of renters spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing. And 21 per cent of them spend more than half their income just to keep a roof over their heads and live the dream.

The average housing cost for renters here is $1,463. That level of expense needs a $55,000 net income to fall within the one-third guideline. Just to add a little ground-level perspective to that number, a single person working full time — 40 hours/week for 50 weeks/year — would need to be making about $36/hr. A couple working full time can cut that in half. Show of hands out there worker bees: how many of you are making $36/hour? $18/hour? So many bodies; so few hands.

So what is the import of any of this? I hate to be put in a position to argue in favour of growing our population, but to do otherwise is to ignore the bloated resort we've — and I use the word we reluctantly — built over the past two decades. No one is going to support my Quixotic move to downsize Whistler. We have the hotels and condos to fill, we're spending the RMI to festivalize and animate the town to bring the lemmings here to fill the beds; more is better and even more is better still. This is our reality, like it or not.

But more tourists mean more hotel staff, more restaurant staff, more front-line retail staff and more of all those staff mean more people who aren't making anywhere near $18/hour. Sadly, you can only abuse people for so long before even the dimmest of them get wise to the con you're running. You can't keep picking your worker's pockets for 50 per cent of what they make just to keep a roof over their heads. Turnover will kill you and, as things seem to stand now, especially in summer, turnover looks a whole lot better when it's compared to simply not being able to find the people to staff the jobs to begin with.

Having an adequate supply of affordable housing will not guarantee Whistler can attract the worker bees it needs. But housing we can build; a living wage we can't seem to convince local businesses to pay. One thing is certain though, not having that housing guarantees we won't attract and keep that workforce. There are only two things that will make this problem less of a problem: 1) A larger, more stable workforce, or 2) a devastating drop in business.

Since we already tried No. 2 and didn't much like it, maybe we need to focus on No. 1.

The only play in town to build more affordable housing is WHA. The project in Cheakamus is a drop in the bucket. The rental units coming on at Rainbow are another drop, and one we don't know the price of as yet.

We have the land, part of our Olympic legacy. WHA can borrow construction costs for practically nothing at current interest rates. We have the demand with 410 people currently on the waitlist for rental housing and more who haven't bothered putting their names on such a long list. The subsequent buildings would be easily mortgaged and their cashflow would cover both the mortgage and operating costs. This is a money-making proposition people.

The only thing we lack in that equation is the will to build it.

Now, lest you think I've been co-opted by the Chamber and local business, let me add I am very, no, VERY uncomfortable guaranteeing rental units to individual businesses. Two reasons: 1) Inevitably we'll hear a horror story of what amounts to indentured servitude: lose your job, lose your housing. 2) Businesses don't have any skin in the game.

But people smarter than me think it's a good idea and I don't need another windmill in my life so, meh. We'll see how it works and hopefully, we'll build enough more affordable rental units to make it irrelevant.


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