November is a month where everything in Whistler seems to be in a state of flux. The weather is changing, teasing the locals with a clear dusting of snow up on the mountain. Empty restaurants reach out to the masses with affordable dining specials. Summer workers are packing their bags as fresh seasonal workers step off the Greyhound in droves, ready for their big adventure in the wintery wonderland of Whistler.
"It's such an overwhelming place and there's so much to learn about very early on when you first arrive," said Jackie Dickinson, an outreach worker at Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS).
"There's an urgency to find a place to live. Staying at a hotel or hostel isn't really a long-term option. Most people are aware when they get here, or find out very quickly, that there is a really short period of time when there's a massive changeover in housing and extended availability of accommodation and that usually happens around the end of October to the beginning of November."
Long-term Whistler residents rarely deal with the stress of finding housing in the fall anymore, but it was probably not too long ago they were stepping off the Greyhound themselves with little money and even less knowledge of how to get settled in a busy resort town. Every local has a story about their first season, the humble beginning that spurred their lifelong relationship with Whistler.
But how does one not only survive, but thrive during the tricky transition from broke couch surfer to fully fledged employed and housed ski bum? For the last 18 years WCSS has published the Whistler Survival Guide, a free pocket sized booklet with a season-by-season guide on how to get the most out of your stay. There's everything from organizing a tax return to how to best handle a bear encounter. One of the most useful sections of the survival guide is a paragraph titled "Know Your Tenancy Rights," which states the amount of money that landlords can legally ask for when signing a lease and provides online information resources such as Tenants and Resources and Advisory Centre (TRAC) and who to contact if you believe you are being treated unfairly by your landlord.
"People found that that was one piece of the guide that was the most resourceful to them when they first arrived," said Dickinson.
"At one time prior to the Olympics there was a huge housing crunch and landlords had an ability to charge and make agreements that weren't always following the landlord-tenancy guidelines. We did actually have feedback from landlords, they were calling us and saying that people were using (the guide) and questioning them about some of the information that we had included. Some landlords were commenting on the fact that they are charging more than that, that they needed security for the winter and people to pay upfront. The truth is that it's against the law to do that."
Thankfully the worst of Whistler's long and arduous housing crisis is well and truly behind us. Last year's municipal election was the first in many years to not feature housing as a central issue.
"Whistler no longer experiences the housing crisis that recent memory evokes up here," said Marla Zucht, General Manager of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA).
"As a community we've finally arrived at a healthy equilibrium of supply and demand. However, once our winter seasonal workforce starts to arrive, the availability of rental housing will start to become more challenging again."
Just how bad was it leading up to the Olympics? With the influx of non-resort workers to Whistler, lured by the abundant construction projects, the supply of rental properties began to dry up and demand skyrocketed. International Olympic representatives from countries around the world were door knocking throughout Whistler's neighbourhoods, offering large sums of money to homeowners to house their team staff for the month of February, 2010. Many homeowners and landlords gleefully accepted and more properties disappeared from the classifieds. Approximately 2,000 properties were advertised in local newspapers in 2008 (as opposed to 3,500 properties in 2007) and in response, 2009 was the year of Whistler's most exorbitant rental market. The average market price for a two bedroom rental rose from $1,887 in 2008 to $2,377 in 2009, an increase of 21 per cent. With the Olympic boom in full swing, seasonal workers would arrive, easily gain employment and then desperately seek accommodation of any sort. Stories circulated of newly-arrived Australians giving up on their Whistler dream that year and heading east towards B.C.'s interior resorts such as Big White and Silverstar, just to alleviate the stress of finding accommodation. Everyone else who decided to tough out the season resorted to paying astronomical rent for shared rooms, broom closets, crawl space and any other available space that was made available. But as the party of the Olympics morphed into an aching hangover, there was at last a change on the horizon for Whistler's housing crisis.
"By the end of 2010, post Olympics, we saw a dramatic re-opening up of the rental market," said Zucht. "By the end of the year there were close to 7,800 units listed for rent. All the units that had been taken off the market for the Olympics had become available."
A big part of that shift was the commissioning of Cheakamus Crossing, the former athletes village, accounting for 221 new ownerships to locals – most coming out of market rental units. WHA opened a new 55-unit affordable rental building and the resident-restricted homes in the Rainbow development also had locals move in. The vacuum left in the rental market by all these new homeowners, coupled with the post Olympic slump in the construction industry, caused a significant drop in market rents between 2009 and 2010. Rents have continued to drop incrementally over the last two years, as has the stress of finding housing in the fall.
"I can remember seven or eight years ago when there used to be line-ups out the door of our office of people desperate to find a place," said Zucht.
"But post Olympics we haven't seen that kind of desperation. People are still coming in and still calling to ask where and how to look for housing, but not at the same volume that it used to be."
Whistler Blackcomb (WB), which this year expects to recruit its regular batch of 850 to 900 new seasonal employees, used to have waiting lists hundreds long but is now able to house every one of its new employees if necessary. With 1,100 beds between their properties at Base II, Brio and Westside, the HOUSE department of WB has even been able to reduce the density of some of its units (e.g. replacing bunk beds with single beds and halving the occupancy) to allow more comfortable living.
"The last three years we've actually had between 50 and 125 beds empty beds in our properties," said Joel Chevalier, Director of Employee Experience at WB.
"For the last two winters we've also been hiring fewer people, increasing the number of people that are going to be working full time with us rather than relying on part time and casuals. Giving more hours to a smaller group of people has meant that paycheques are bigger, which then gives people more options on where to live."
Living the dream
Most residents of Whistler, either past or present, can attest to having lived in questionable accommodations at some point. Local photographer Carin Smolinski was looking for a new project in the years leading up to the Olympics, just when the housing crisis was at its peak.
"I had been living in Whistler for a while and it occurred to me that things that seemed so normal to us weren't exactly normal to the rest of the world," she said.
"I put up posters all around town saying if you live in unique, crazy, fun or interesting living conditions, let me photograph it and I'll give you a six pack of beer. Needless to say I got quite a few calls."
With a steady supply of six packs in the trunk of her car, Smolinski drove from one end of the valley to the other to photograph rooms in cramped crawl spaces, outdoor squats and even a "tent city," — seven men sharing a bedroom partitioned by bed sheets. Her work, titled "Living the Dream," has been featured in the Globe and Mail, The Ski Journal and was exhibited at the State of the Art exhibition at World Ski and Snowboard Festival in 2010. At each photo shoot she would get the occupants to fill out a questionnaire asking them about their living arrangements, work situations and what made their living conditions unique. At the end of the survey was the question: "Are you living the dream?"
"What was crazy is that 95 per cent of these people, all the people living under the stairs, living in tent cities, renting saunas, they were all so stoked to be living here riding the mountain and skiing every day. They didn't care that they were sharing with 15 people, they were just having the times of their lives. That's not to say that maybe it was the demographic that replied to my ad..."
Smolinsksi is compiling her work to be published into a photo book, a five-year project that will no doubt strike a chord with many of Whistler's longtime residents.
Maintaining good relations
Every seasoned tenant in Whistler has a tale or two of an unjust landlord. Tight purse strings for upkeep, sketchy lease agreements and non-refunded damage deposits are but a few of the tales told. One landlord-tenant dispute earlier this year resulted in the masked landlord entering his property to assault the tenants in the middle of the night, as reported by the RCMP.
But landlords have their share of horror stories too.
"I've only had one bad experience and it was quite spectacular," said Smolinski, who up until recently owned a condo in the Benchlands area on Blackcomb.
"I probably should have listened to my intuition. We said it was really important that there's not any more people living here than are on the (lease) agreement, which was four. My intuition was telling me it was better to leave it empty than to rent to them. But the mortgage had to be paid, so I ended up renting to these four young people.
"The first month our strata called and said that there had been a lot of complaints and that it looked like a dump outside. I got there and there was probably 500 beer cans out front of the house and stolen banners from Whistler Kids scattered around. I knocked on the door and it was full of people sleeping everywhere, none of them were actually the ones I had rented to. They had turned the dining room table into a big DJ station, they had tacked porn all over the walls and there were massive stains all over the carpet."
After multiple warnings and attempts to talk through the issue with the tenants, Smolinksi showed up with adequate notice to her current tenants to show the place to prospective new tenants.
"It was one in the afternoon, people were everywhere, clouds of smoke wafted around and the coffee table was covered in paraphernalia. The poor people that I had brought were terrified; they were so scared they wouldn't go past the first level. I was in tears.
"In the end I had to gut the place, replace all the carpets and repaint all the walls. They (the tenants) were out in November and I missed out on Christmas rentals. At the end of the day I should have listened to my intuition. Anyone can provide a fake reference, in the end all you do have to go on is your gut feeling."
Landlords definitely have a better selection of applicants when renting for the winter, but mortgages require payments in the summer as well. A hastily signed lease or slip in judgement can affect both parties and clear communication is always needed before committing to a long-term lease. In some cases, however, it just ends up being a gamble.
"It's a mutual relationship and understanding that both people are on the same page before a lease is signed," said Dickinson.
"Some of the best things you can do as a landlord and a tenant is work out all those issues before you sign a lease, versus moving into a place and learning about all this after."
Leaseholders have the benefit of being backed up by a binding contract, but many Whistler residents will often rent sublet rooms with the leaseholder of the house acting as the landlord liaison and setting the prices of the room and utilities. Most of the time it is a fair transaction, but occasionally tenant-tenant relations can sour.
"I moved to Whistler in February of 2002 from North Vancouver," said former Whistler resident Karen Livingstone, who now lives in Squamish.
"I had met some people from Australia who were living together in a house in Alpine and a room was coming up for $400 plus utilities. My housing situation (there) promptly turned ugly, as I learned that my new roommates of a two bedroom suite had eight to ten other people 'flopping' each night. Bed time was essentially musical chairs — last one home slept on the floor. Sometimes I was lucky enough to get the futon in the living room. It was better than the three-person bunk downstairs, which if I ended up in, the boys would fart all night from below and laugh about it. The house got trashed. It was grimy and there were holes in the walls and someone had kicked right through the shower tile into the drywall.
"The boys left in the spring, telling me that they had met with our landlord and gotten their deposit back, and that he knew about the shower hole and everything was fine and sorted.
"I had been paying $50 a month in utilities for four months, along with my rent to one of the boys who 'looked after the bills.' It was the beginning of the month and the beginning of summer so I called the landlord to discuss rent. He came up to look at the place and not only knew nothing about the shower damage and other damage, but he had never received a cent in utility money from anyone and informed me of a $950.00 utility bill.
"Fortunately he was a reasonable man and as my name was not actually on the lease and he admitted it was his own fault for believing the boys and giving them their deposit back sight unseen, he let it go and let me stay for a good price.
"But I only stayed until the end of the month, as knowing the history of that place I just moved out and started fresh. Life in Whistler quickly turned around at that point."
The fall renting season is no longer the desperate land grab it was just a few short years ago, but it is still the busiest time of year and competition for the best properties is at its highest. Renters can afford to be more fussy at other times of the year, but lingering too long in the search can mean missing out and having to pay more for less space. As more long-term residents turn towards ownership, hopefully the rental market will stay in check with local incomes and allow thousands more people to come live the dream in Whistler.
Tips for landing a sweet pad
Scour the Classifieds
Pique is published every Thursday morning and is available online. Be ready to start making phone calls at 9 a.m. and arrange a viewing. The early bird gets the nice rental!
When meeting the landlord try to make yourself look presentable, and above all, be honest. First impressions are everything. Be careful not to embellish your attributes too much, it's still a small town and lies can come back to bite you. Landlords have admitted to Googling potential tenant's names and looking at Facebook evidence.
Be wary of Craigslist scams. Whistler is a hotspot for offshore scammers trying to convince you to wire money overseas before sending you the keys. Watch for vague property descriptions, fabricated addresses and lower then market rents. If the deal looks too good to be true — it's because it is.
Read the documentation
If you get an offer from the landlord or property manager, make sure to read the lease carefully — it's a binding contract.
The landlord can ask for no more than one month's rent upfront and a half-month's rent as damage deposit. If you are asked for any more money upfront you should refuse and refer the landlord to the Residential Tenancy Branch
If you are renewing a 12 month lease, the maximum allowable rent increase by your landlord in 2013 is 3.8 per cent.
Vibe it out
If renting a sublet room, you can ask to see the rental agreement so you know you are paying your fair share. Do the same for utilities if the rate seems high,
If at any point during your housing search you get a bad gut feeling, question what you are risking. You may be bound to this living arrangement for the next six or 12 months.
Enjoy your new home and make new friends, but always have a sixth sense at the ready when moving in with strangers or even people you know. When living with people you can see sides of them you never thought existed!
Avoiding the scam
Online rental scams have been around for several years now and while most prospective tenants know to avoid unusual ad responses (landlords claiming to be on humanitarian missions in Africa are surprisingly common), people still occasionally get caught off guard.
"Seasonally we do find there's a little bit of an increase in the fall as people are starting to look for winter accommodation," said Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair of the Whistler RCMP.
"It's not something we can consider an epidemic, but people do have to be careful when they're not dealing with people face to face."
In response to the raised awareness of rental fraud, scammers have adapted their strategies with more elaborate stories and unconventional methods to transfer funds, but the warning signs should still be visible.
"Some of these people are very sophisticated in that they'll post photos of a place online," said LeClair. "It's nothing that they own or have any access to, they've gone online and pulled photos of a rental place and come up with a real legitimate story."
Part of that story will usually involve a wire transfer of funds overseas, usually through Western Union or other monetary transfer services that are difficult to trace. Assurances that keys will be posted to you in Whistler upon receipt of funds are a big warning sign and the email conversation should end there.
"Sending money to people in far away countries is a red flag," said LeClair."
"I would certainly be very cautious about dealing with someone who isn't willing to meet face-to-face. I wouldn't want to blanket say that those people are all scammers, but if I was going to be a landlord I would certainly want to meet my potential tenant to get an idea of what they're like."
Landlords can also be hit with scammers posing as tenants who overpay their first month's rent or damage deposit then ask for a reimbursement of the difference. Fraudulent cheques are not easily recognizable (though bank tellers are trained how to spot them) so it's a good idea to wait until the cheque clears or gets returned. Any counterfeit cheques or suspected fraud should be reported to the RCMP.
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