By Bob Barnett
It’s been a seasonal tradition in Whistler for the last decade or more. Round about August or September the anticipation starts to build — not for the ski season but for the pending accommodation crisis.
For years affordable housing in Whistler has been a lot like the weather: everyone talked about it but few did anything. Intrawest and Whistler Mountain built some housing for their employees and a few developers built affordable housing in exchange for zoning for market developments, but the volunteer Whistler Valley Housing Society, which was intended to facilitate affordable housing projects, was frustrated by lack of authority and a clear mandate. As a result, each fall the housing situation was much the same, or worse.
One of the first things the current Whistler council did following the 1996 municipal election — an election which fell just as a call for affordable housing projects closed — was to commission a study by the CitySpaces firm to determine the extent of Whistler’s affordable housing problem and to suggest steps to address the problem. The report, released in April of 1997, found the demand for affordable housing was greater than anyone had anticipated. CitySpaces recommended the creation of a full-time, professional housing authority to deal with the issue.
Last fall the Whistler Housing Authority was born, a company wholly-owned by the municipality with a mandate to expedite the creation of resident employee housing.
Even though affordable housing was a priority of virtually all candidates for council in 1996, and the elected council appeared to be given a mandate to create affordable housing, opposition is now developing to projects initiated by the housing authority. Moreover, neighbours of the proposed projects are asking questions about the authority’s composition and its role.
Rick Staehli, general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority, has heard the criticism before.
"We’re not inventing anything here," says Staehli, a Pemberton resident who spent eight years with the B.C. Housing Management Commission.
"The key is supply and demand. The housing authority’s job is to boost the supply."
The tools to boost that supply are the employee works and service charges the municipality has been collecting on all commercial developments for the past several years. The fund, which stood at $5.78 million at the end of 1997, has been collected by the municipality to build employee housing, so by law that is what it must be used for.
And because the municipality is legally responsible for that money it must dominate the WHA board of directors. As the money is spent (and the WHA role becomes more one of managing properties, rather than building them) the board will likely reflect that and have fewer members of council and more representatives of the general public.
The current directors are: Mayor Hugh O’Reilly, Councillors Ted Milner, Kristi Wells and Dave Kirk, municipal administrator Jim Godfrey, Steve Bayly, a general contractor who was interim general manager of the housing authority until Staehli was hired, and Doug Ogilvie of Intrawest.
Intrawest is represented on the board because of its standing in the development community.
"We have had great co-operation from them," Staehli says. "They’ve given us assistance in pricing service costs, unit costs — their information is always available to us."
Intrawest also acts as a sounding board for the WHA when it needs a yard stick to measure how it’s doing. And the housing authority will be working with Intrawest as the development firm realigns Whistler Creek to run through the WHA’s Beaver Flats project.
"The municipality wants to enhance the creek for fish, maintain a green buffer and provide Valley Trail access," Staehli says of the Beaver Flats area. "We have to work closely with Intrawest to make it happen and to keep it affordable."
Beaver Flats is one of two parcels the housing authority has purchased this year for affordable housing projects. The other parcel is at the foot of Lorimer Road in Tapley’s Farm, where the WHA is proposing six one-bedroom, six two-bedroom and two three-bedroom rental units.
Exactly what is proposed for Beaver Flats depends on how the Whistler Creek realignment is done, but the housing authority is leaning towards a combination of low density rental duplexes or townhouses on the lower elevation and apartments closer to the highway.
Both purchases have drawn fire, with some neighbouring residents saying variously:
o the housing authority paid too much for the lots
o should have acquired options to purchase — contingent on rezoning — rather than purchasing outright
o because the municipality dominates the board of the housing authority rezoning is a foregone conclusion and any concerns neighbours have will be ignored
o the demand for affordable housing, particularly rental housing, has fallen since the CitySpaces study and there is no proof these projects are needed.
Staehli says the price paid for a piece of land is based on a study of the market and on what the housing authority feels it can reasonably build on the site without impacting the neighbourhood.
"If we don’t purchase a site prior to our (rezoning) application, the price is too high," Staehli says. "I’m confident we can resell (the Beaver Flats and Lorimer sites) without a loss if rezoning fails."
As for options to purchase, he suggests few people are willing to tie up their land for a year while tests are done and the rezoning application makes its way through municipal hall.
"The price will be higher because the land is tied up so long," Staehli says, although he admits options to purchase may be possible in very soft markets.
The housing authority chooses sites based on priorities set out by council, including access to public transit or proximity to major areas of employment, preservation of natural environment, density and compatibility with existing neighbourhoods.
"Obviously the best solution is where a developer donates a piece of land, and the best way to incorporate housing is in a new neighbourhood, such as Spring Creek," Staehli says of Intrawest’s proposed subdivision south of Millar’s Pond, which includes employee housing.
To suggestions that the need for employee housing has declined since the 1997 CitySpaces study, Staehli says that’s just short sighted thinking. Two students are doing surveys this summer to update the data on housing, but Staehli is confident the results will confirm last year’s report.
"There’s no doubt in my mind, and the board’s, that we must continue to build rental and some employee-owned housing," he says.
The need is great enough that virtually every subdivision in Whistler will, at some point, be considered for some type of employee housing project. At present, the housing authority’s efforts are primarily directed at the rental market because that’s the area of highest need.
Future plans include looking at new opportunities, such as lofts above existing commercial spaces where the land component may be zero, and establishing a priority list for housing.
"We hope to have a priority list by late summer or early fall, to determine the occupants of Lot 78," Staehli says of the townhouse rental project in Nordic Estates initiated last year by the Whistler Valley Housing Society. Occupants will be determined by a scoring system in which the principal factors will be length of time in Whistler and needs.
"We’re looking at all the housing jurisdictions in North America and their point systems," Staehli says.
Eventually the WHA will also compile a list of the employee-owned units with restrictive covenants on re-sale prices. The WHA will post the unit re-sale price gains each quarter.
While the housing authority’s main task for the foreseeable future is trying to meet the demand for employee housing, there is a limit on how much employee housing will be needed. By the end of the year Staehli hopes to have a plan in place indicating how many units can be built with the works and service funds.
"The members of the board all live in Whistler and don’t want to do anything to harm their community," Staehli says. "I hope the public will see what we’re building as an asset to their neighbourhood."