The Whistler Housing Authority is doing its part to help ease local labour woes with plans in the works for a $5.5 million, 100-bed employee rental apartment building in Cheakamus Crossing.
"Providing housing is only one piece of the puzzle... but certainly, for us, being able to address the community's employee housing needs, this is an area that we've been researching and feel that it's time again for us to bring on a new building," said WHA General Manager Marla Zucht, adding that the WHA's last rental project was five years ago.
Zucht presented the project to council on Tuesday night, Sept. 15.
"I think this is really going in the right direction," said Councillor Steve Anderson.
The WHA is proposing a partnership with the business community where business owners could rent the one- and two-bedroom units from the WHA and then offer the beds to staff. It's a concept talked about in the past but never done before.
"Our concept with this new project is that we will be going out to businesses, and we will be offering them the opportunity to secure leases with us for these new units for their staff," explained Zucht.
In a WHA survey this year, 80 businesses expressed an interest in partnering in a project like this. The WHA also has a 300-strong waitlist for people looking to move in to its rental inventory.
"There's certainly strong demand for additional rental housing product within the community," said Zucht.
While the designs are preliminary, the plans call for a three-storey complex with 27 units. It will be located on the southwest corner of Cloudburst Drive, just around the corner from the Athletes' Centre.
Local business owners, like Wendy Wheeler of Whistler Home Services, think it's a great idea.
"I think it would help, definitely," she said, adding that she has been chronically short-staffed this summer, with more employees set to leave soon as their visas expire.
"At the moment (the labour situation) is pretty dire... There are so many people looking for employees. You just pass a (store) window and it's 'Full Time. Part Time. Available Now.'"
She can't help but worry about the busy season ahead. And if workers come, where will they stay? Wheeler is considering renting bedrooms as a way to entice new employees this winter.
According to the WHA annual Employer Housing Needs Assessment report, also presented to council Tuesday night, 17 per cent of Whistler businesses were unable to achieve full staffing needs last winter. Only 35 businesses provided a reason why. Zucht cautioned that the results then should be taken with a grain of salt. The main reason provided was the transient nature of Whistler's workforce, which reached 13,200 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions last winter, an increase of 400 over the previous year.
Businesses also projected there will be a 0.8 per cent increase in the winter workforce this season, growing to 13,300 FTE's.
The report also gauged businesses for their summer workforce projections. At the time of the survey in May, Whistler businesses estimated the summer workforce at 9,800 FTE's and 22 per cent estimated that they would have staffing shortages in the summer. It is not clear what percentage was short staffed this summer, but "help wanted" signs have dominated local storefronts throughout town, gradually getting more common as the summer wore on.
When asked if Whistler would see a much more serious housing crunch this winter, Zucht said: "More businesses are actually going out and lining up staff housing for this coming winter."Having staff housing has always been a way to attract employees."
Thirteen per cent of Whistler employers provide some staff housing at this point.
The WHA plans to pay for the project with $2.07 million from the Employee Works and Services Reserve, a savings account specifically for employee housing. The WHA has another $1 million it can put towards the project, leaving it short $2.5 million. It plans to borrow that money from the Municipal Financing Authority, which can provide the best short-term interim construction financing.
If all goes to plan, helped along with council's unanimous support for the project this week, the WHA could see people moving in to the new building in early 2017.
Zucht added: "It could still be quite tough this winter."
Whistler remains within its stated goal of housing 75 per cent of its workforce. Last winter, 79 per cent lived in Whistler, which Zucht called "a really impressive achievement for our resort community."
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