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Crunch time

Peering into the pitfalls of Whistler's housing shortage

A couple of weeks ago, local server Jon Proulx posted to Facebook looking for a room to rent.

"ISO: My own room in the village, preferably a studio with a hot tub and view on (Whistler Blackcomb). Not willing to pay more than $500/month and must have all bills included."

Like a lot of posts on the 5,000-strong Whistler Winter page, it immediately drew scoffs from a whole host of sardonic commenters.

"Keep dreaming bud," wrote one.

"You might share a room with two people in a house of eight in Emerald for that price," another accurately pointed out. Turns out Proulx was engaging in the time-honoured Internet tradition of trolling, simply trying to get a rise out of his fellow Whistlerites. And while a Jacuzzi overlooking the mountains may have been a bit much to ask for at that price, is it really that absurd to want to lock down a room of your own for the very reasonable rate of $500 a month — especially in a town chock-full of waiters and lifties living paycheque to paycheque?

"It took me two years to secure a place that was $500 for a single room, and it was with the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA)," says Proulx.

Like a lot of the overworked and underpaid workers in town, Proulx has experienced his fair share of housing horror stories over the years. There was the cramped chalet he rented with some friends jammed four to a room, which still wasn't as bad as the seasonal workers he heard about last winter; they were so desperate for a place they forked over $1,400 apiece to share a room in Blueberry.

Then there was the time he had his name on the lease for a place in Alpine, only to have the other tenants bail on him when a better option popped up, leaving him to cover rent he could no longer afford. In a community where the housing inventory seems to shrink every year, where some homeowners have decided it's more lucrative — not to mention less troublesome — to rent their place out to well-heeled vacationers instead of locals, stories like Proulx's are the rule, not the exception.

It's an issue facing many resort communities across North America, and one that has far-reaching economic, social and cultural implications.

Can the community continue to thrive as a world-class vacation destination when its entry-level workers — who make up the very engine that drives Whistler — can't find a place to lay down their heads for the night? How much longer can we continue to entice droves of fresh-faced twenty-somethings from across the globe when they're forced to work excruciatingly long hours just to cover their exorbitant rent costs?

And how long will Whistler stay "open for business" while the lack of housing keeps frontline workers away, forcing employers to get by with a depleted staff, or, worse yet, shutter their doors?

"It's quite hard to make both ends join in this town if you're doing a minimum wage job that doesn't involve tips or a crazy amount of work," Proulx says. "I think we all come to Whistler to live a certain dream, but that dream is getting more and more expensive."

Crisis Management

It seemed like everywhere you went last winter, you couldn't escape the chatter around Whistler's housing crunch. A quick scan of local social media told you pretty much all you needed to know: Every second or third post was either a recent arrival in town pleading for a spare room, a forgotten couch — anything, really — or a landlord advertising the rare opportunity to shack up with a house full of complete strangers for the low, low price of an arm and a leg.

Some prospective renters even got a little creative: One young man took to the Village Stroll, with his custom-made sandwich board, touting his maturity and cleanliness to potential landlords. More recently, another plastered colourful posters in bus shelters around the village that featured a simple demand from Uncle Sam himself: "I Want You...To Rent Me A Room for the Winter."

It's the kind of outside-the-box thinking that many have had to resort to with Whistler's dwindling housing supply.

And while those unique tactics, along with the rise of social media, may have amplified the impacts of today's housing crunch, affordable accommodation has been on the minds of local officials for years now.

"We've always recognized how important affordable housing is," says Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "We came back from our last trip to Colorado in 1996 and formed the Whistler Housing Authority, and we've been paying close attention to affordable housing ever since."

A municipal subsidiary, the WHA is recognized as an industry leader when it comes to housing workers locally — 79 per cent of the workforce lived in the community last winter, virtually unheard of in most resort towns — and has kept its fingers on the pulse of Whistler's housing market for nearly two decades.

For WHA general manager Marla Zucht, it's hard to pinpoint the cause of the current housing situation to one or two factors, but she believes Whistler's desirability and skyrocketing visitor numbers certainly play a role.

"We came off a super successful year last year that carried us into strong demand for rental in the fall," she says. "Last year we were getting more inquiries from people who wanted to stay longer in Whistler for the winter season, which is great, but it creates more pressure and more competition for the available housing stock for our local employees."

Demand was so high in fact that Zucht believes last year was the first in WHA's history that more people registered for resident-restricted rental housing than signed on for ownership units.

"That's been an interesting change for us," she says.

As of Oct. 29, there were 220 people on WHA's rental waitlist, 129 of which signed on since September. The purchase waitlist sits at 465.

Fortunately, WHA is working to ease some of the stress on the local rental market with last month's announcement of a new $5.5-million employee apartment building that's expected for completion in early 2017. Slated for Cheakamus Crossing, the 100-bed, three-storey complex will allow business owners to rent out one or more of the 27 units and offer them to their employees. It's the first rental project by the WHA since 2010.

But with a cap on development codified in its Official Community Plan, Whistler isn't likely to see its market housing stock significantly expand anytime soon. Add that lack of product to healthy interest from homebuyers — September was the resort's busiest month in real estate sales since before the recession of 2008 — and home prices are only expected to climb further.

"It certainly has an impact on people looking to move here," says Whistler Real Estate Company president Pat Kelly. The median price of a chalet in Whistler rose from $1,250,000 in 2014 to $1,315,000 this year — a 5.2-per-cent hike. "It raises the bottom of the market, so it makes Cheakamus Crossing and the WHA inventory more attractive and the need for WHA inventory more necessary."

Market forces have pushed up rental costs as well. The average rent for a one-bedroom home this year to date is $1,469. That's a seven-per-cent increase over 2014's average of $1,376, the highest in the previous five years.

What's also become evident is that the traditional home-buying cycle in Whistler has transformed. "People are selling their homes and new buyers are coming in with a different idea of what their Whistler place will be," says former councillor Ralph Forsyth, who launched a short-lived housing complaint hotline in 2007 for residents. "Back in the day, people built suites and they rented the suite to someone who would look after the house while they were away on the weekend.

"Now it's changing. People are just tearing down homes and putting in a house with no suite."

It's a trend the municipality is hoping to get a better handle on with a new report expected to come before council in the New Year.

"We don't know how many older homes in older subdivisions have been torn down and are replaced by homes without suites. We don't know what Airbnb and others are doing in the subdivisions," Wilhelm-Morden says. "So we need to really do some evidence gathering so we can make some intelligent decisions in the coming months."

The Homesharing Dilemma

Cities across the globe have wrestled with the explosion in popularity of homesharing sites in recent years, to varying degrees of success.

New York's city council has taken a heavy-handed approach, threatening to raise fines for Airbnb hosts from $1,000 to $50,000. Even still, there remain more than 16,000 property listings across the five boroughs.

In the ski town of Durango, Colo., officials concerned with the changing character of the community have limited vacation home rentals to one per block.

Jackson, Wyo. has taken an even stricter approach, where it has, for years, completely prohibited short-term rentals in residential zones. It's a tactic that has effectively countered the trend seen in many resort communities, including Whistler.

"This one single zoning position has done more to help the market provide workforce housing than any other single thing I've ever seen," says Colorado-based housing consultant Melanie Rees. "And that's because, in the absence of being able to build units that second-home buyers can buy and rent out when they're not using them, (developers) are building apartments, they're building housing for year-round locals."In San Francisco, where Airbnb quietly launched in 2007, a nasty battle over short-term rentals has played out for months. The Bay Area's housing shortage has reached near comical levels, and city officials proposed tight restrictions on homesharing through Proposition F, which would have capped the number of nights hosts could rent their properties, required Airbnb to share a windfall of data publicly, and imposed hefty fines for users that went astray. But in a show of just how much influence the global behemoth now has, Airbnb reportedly spent over $8 million in advertising to sway voters, who ultimately defeated the bill.

Some communities, however, have realized the so-called "sharing economy" isn't going away anytime soon, and rather than cracking down, have decided to embrace homesharing services — with a few caveats attached.

In Breckenridge, officials go by the philosophy that "a warm bed is a good bed," says Wilhelm-Morden, who recently returned from a fact-finding mission to the Centennial State with members of RMOW council and staff, and other community representatives.

"They weren't really concerned that Airbnb and other homesharing organizations were moving into residential housing, but they did recognize it is affecting the supply of housing for employees," she says. "Their solution was, rather than try to regulate Airbnb and others out of residential housing, to simply build more employee housing. That kind of option isn't necessarily available to us."

Breckenridge officials' concern over Airbnb eating into affordable housing was no doubt lessened thanks to the fact that they have effectively been able to track — and tax — over 90 per cent of the short-term rentals in the community thanks to a piece of proprietary software that's been made available to all members of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST). (Whistler also belongs to the collective.)

It's an area where Whistler lags far behind its Colorado counterpart, something Sue Chappel, owner of Whistler-based vacation rental site alluraDirect, hopes to change.

"I think the answer is that both of the local central reservation companies in Whistler, so Whistler Blackcomb and, become the best, most comprehensive, safest, most enjoyable places online to book a trip here," she says. "The only reason people use Airbnb, VRBO or even Craigslist, is because they know that our local central reservation sites don't represent the complete inventory."

The proliferation of illegal nightly rentals has had another unexpected effect on Whistler's housing market, says Chappel.

"What is happening is that all these different housing streams are sort of being merged," she says. "There are more properties being offered for short-term rentals at the same time that vacation rentals that are actually zoned for nightly rental are sitting empty. In turn, they're being used by long-term residents."

"It's this weird situation where all our housing is being homogenized."

By not attracting the intended customer to Whistler's legal vacation rentals, Chappel believes the community is not only worsening the housing situation for locals, but missing out on a major economic opportunity.

"I would say the legally zoned vacation rental sector is one of Whistler's lowest-hanging fruits for generating new tourism business to the resort," she says. "There's so much underutilized capacity in the vacation rental inventory that it's a huge marketing opportunity to attract families, groups and what have you."

One option the municipality is weighing to better distinguish Whistler's housing streams is establishing a means assessment tool to ensure the people who need affordable housing the most are accessing WHA's price-restricted inventory.

But Chappel also wants to see heavier fines imposed for illegal nightly rentals, creating a punishment that would counter the financial incentive attached to homesharing. (A recently leaked memo from real-estate developer Coldwell Banker Commercial showed that landlords could more than double their net annual income by renting to nightly tourists instead of locals.)

"One creative solution is for the municipality to have pretty enormous fines because money talks louder than a knock on the door," says Chappel. "Sometimes the caveman approach really works."

Currently, the RMOW will issue up to two letters requesting compliance to homeowners found in contravention of zoning, after which they can impose a $1,000 fine. In rare instances, council can also consider a costly Supreme Court injunction.

Staffing Solutions

Ru Mehta knows full well that a happy worker is a productive worker. For close to 20 years, the Samurai Sushi owner has been helping his staff — primarily made up of Japanese transplants — settle into the community. That's meant not only paying a livable wage, but also helping them lock down a place to live. He used to own a staff house in White Gold he'd rent out on the cheap. He took out ads offering to rent out spare beds around town. In the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics, he filled a condo in Tamarisk with bunk beds to use as transitional housing.

He charged as little as he possibly could, and rarely made a profit. He didn't see it as a moneymaking venture, but rather his duty as an employer.

"I think employers have a responsibility to their own business, and in turn that can often help the community," he says.

After a summer when the village was littered with "Help Wanted" signs, Mehta is taking a different approach to attract staff, something Wilhelm-Morden believes other local businesses should consider. "Employers have to give some serious consideration to what they can do over the course of the next several months to help not just with their own businesses but with their employees as well," she says. "This is when employers really do have to step up to the plate."

According to the WHA's most recent Employer Needs Assessment report, 17 per cent of Whistler businesses were unable to meet their staffing needs last winter. That number was likely higher this summer.

To fill in the gaps Mehta is "tying a job to a bed" this fall at Samurai Sushi — even if that means his wallet will take a hit. He's already paying rent for several empty beds at homes in Alpine and Creekside until new staff arrive, and has even offered to cover their airfare to Whistler.

"It's not that we're not concerned about making a profit, but we've set that aside for now. Our goal is to get people and get open," says Mehta, whose Creekside location has been forced to close four days a week last month due to staff shortages. "Once we get open we can worry about trying to operate as a business that makes money again. That's just the reality right now."

It's the kind of sacrifice he'd wish some of Whistler's landlords would consider instead of charging astronomical rents just because they can.

"Some landlords provide a good service for what they charge. Others are providing a total dive, where it's leaking and there's mice running around and they're charging the same rent," he says.

"If I could sell a sushi roll for $100, would I do it? Yeah, maybe, but I don't know if I would be in business forever."

What often gets lost in all the talk of Whistler's housing shortage is what it means for the community's identity. It's a place people come to escape their regular lives, find some adventure and blow off a little steam. But Mehta worries that dream could wear thin if things continue the way they are.

"You come to Whistler as a 22-year-old and you're coming here to have fun," he says. "If you get put in a bedroom where you're sleeping in a cramped situation with people you don't know for $800 a month, it's not fun.

"Whether it's a liftie on the mountain or a dishwasher in a restaurant, we need people to work. If the young people aren't having fun here, they're not going to come. And if they don't come, this town's going to fall apart."

As for Proulx's part, after four years of bouncing from place to place, working two jobs to make ends meet, he's decided to give up on his Whistler dream.

Instead, he's headed to Quebec City, where he found a one-bedroom in the heart of the downtown core. His rent? $340 a month.