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The Waiting Game

With hundreds still waiting for affordable housing in Whistler, will demand ever be satisfied?

Like hundreds of others, Javier Montava put his time in on the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) waitlist—more than four years, by his count, when he reached out to Pique last year.

At that time, Montava raised a number of questions that would be familiar to anyone languishing on the WHA waitlists: are people somehow “cheating” the lists? Are ineligible people living in WHA units? Is preferential placement being given to WHA staff?

Like many who raise these queries, Montava’s line of questioning was backed up by mostly anecdotal evidence—but when an email update from the WHA inexplicably bumped him from 229 on the housing waitlist to 236, he was in shock.

“My face was epic—how?” Montava wrote in an email to Pique. “How is it possible that people are going backwards?”

When he reached out to WHA, he was informed there was a “slight discrepancy” in the waitlist positions, and that positions may be off by up to 20 spots.

In Montava’s view, the discrepancy was proof of one of two things: preferential treatment or time travel.

But the real explanation is more benign, according to WHA general manager Marla Zucht. The discrepancies in the list Montava pointed out were due to movement associated with two new WHA buildings coming online in late 2019, Zucht says.

In tenanting those buildings, the WHA went through its waitlist to gauge interest, a process that resulted in about 20 applicants being flagged for removal from the list.

“They just hadn’t got removed at that period of time,” Zucht says, adding that when the names were eventually removed, it resulted in movement on the lists.

In the fall of 2020, Montava was finally offered a WHA unit in Cheakamus Crossing, which he accepted. But like many Whistlerites, he still feels the local housing authority could do with some improvement.

“I still think the system is a mess,” he says. “No transparency and nonsense rules.”

WAITING TO EXHALE

While Zucht has been WHA’s general manager since 2005, she’s worked with the organization for more than 20 years.

It’s safe to say the local housing authority has evolved in that time.

“[When I started], the waitlist was a paper document on a bulletin board,” she says with a laugh.

“I’m not even sure the general manager had a computer when I started at the housing authority.”

By Zucht’s recollection, there were about 100 names on that paper list—a far cry from the 1,200-plus now listed for rentals.

With that many people searching for housing, questions and criticisms like Montava’s do arise from time to time at the WHA offices.

For the most part, when people reach out and get a better understanding of how the waitlists actually work, they’re satisfied, Zucht says.

But “there is nothing arbitrary” about the lists.

“People don’t get skipped over for somebody else. I mean, that just doesn’t happen. There’s no priority,” Zucht says.

It could conceivably happen if someone in a wheelchair needed an accessible WHA unit, but even that is rare, she adds.

“If they’re just putting their application in, and they think they’re signing up for just one list, then they’re probably just not appreciating how that list distils down with the various different project types,” she says.

“So I really do believe once people call and sit down with us, or we go through it on the phone, then they understand it.”

But a WHA waitlist (rental or purchase) is not just one unified list—it’s “myriad” different lists sorted by project type and building.

“It is one master waitlist, but within that waitlist, it’s broken down by various projects, and then various projects each have one-bedroom, two-bedroom, three-bedroom studios,” Zucht says, adding that your position on the master list is based on when you apply.

“So you might be No. 900 on the master waitlist, but then if you’ve signed up for Seppos or Lorimer or Beaver Flats or Chiyakmesh, and a one-bedroom or a studio or a three-bedroom, you’re going to have rankings on each of those projects,” she explains.

“So that’s where it kind of distils down.”

When a property becomes available, the WHA starts at the top of the master list and works its way down, using applicants’ preferences as a filter.

“We go down the list by whoever is highest on the list,” Zucht says.

“And then it will just depend on if you are signed up for that particular unit type that has come up for rent or for sale.”

But securing affordable housing through the WHA is not always a passive exercise—residents have to stay engaged, and not be afraid to advocate for themselves if necessary.

Case in point: In researching this feature, I came across my own WHA application, signed and submitted Feb. 26, 2016. Surely I am at the very top of the list after nearly five years?

Hardly. According to Zucht, my name was culled from the list by the fall of 2017, after I neglected to respond to a confirmation email.

Oops.

MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE

Whistler Councillor Jen Ford joined the WHA board of directors as a non-voting member in 2012, and now serves as chair.

“I was on the waitlist, and we just had so many friends, so many people that were so invested in the WHA, and I really wanted to be a part of the solution,” Ford says, of what made her want to join.

“I wanted to be involved in the community, and it felt like a pretty good place for me to get involved.”

Ford and her husband were able to lock down their own WHA unit in April 2017, after coming in as the second offer on four different occasions.

“We pretty much put in an offer sight unseen,” she says.

Having experienced both sides of the waitlist—the waiting and administrating—Ford has a unique insight into the process.

“It’s not black and white, but it’s very, very fair,” she notes.

“There’s lots of urban legends about how it works, and so that unfortunately compounds this notion that there is preference … I do know from having worked with this team for so long, that it is very fair, and it just doesn’t always work for people’s circumstances.”

Like Zucht, Ford ascribed some of the confusion to the various “sublists” contained within the WHA’s master list.

“So when people see, ‘Well. I haven’t moved on this list,’ well, maybe no two-bedroom unit in Millar’s Ridge has sold, and so you’ve stayed static on that list. And so that’s where it gets really fuzzy and very frustrating for people.”

As of February 2021, the WHA purchase waitlist had 881 names on it, representing 1,323 employees (though with the WHA’s annual confirmation process, about 10 per cent of those will be removed, Zucht says).

The WHA processed 96 new purchase waitlist applications in 2020, and tallied 26 resales of price and occupancy restricted homes.

“The median wait time for a purchase waitlist member to buy through the WHA in 2020 was approximately four years,” Zucht says.

“In 2020, we saw trickle-down in over one-third of resales where, for example, a WHA property was purchased by an existing WHA owner resulting in another WHA sale to occur, a WHA tenant purchased in the WHA ownership inventory, or tenants of an employee restricted suite purchased in the WHA ownership inventory.”

On the rental side, there are close to 1,300 applicants on the waitlist, though a February confirmation process will likely cull about 20 per cent of the names, Zucht says.

In 2020, 17 rental properties turned over to waitlisters, with a median wait time of about three years, Zucht said.

There is about 20- to 25-per-cent overlap between the rental and purchase waitlists, she adds.  

IF YOU BUILD IT…

The WHA has been busy as ever in recent years, adding 116 new rental units (and 275 beds) across four buildings since 2018.

With the Resort Municipality of Whistler forging ahead on development of Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2 (with potential for another 295 units in the coming years), will the waitlist soon be satiated?

“No,” Ford says. “Because we’ve done this wonderful job of creating this amazing place to live, and there’s no shortage of people that want to live here.”

Fair enough.

That said, Ford still believes Cheakamus Phase 2, and other recent WHA projects, have had an impact on availability.

“Is it enough, and is it quick enough? Definitely not,” she says. “But you don’t want to make bad decisions because of one thing or another. You want to make sure that they’re going to be affordable, and so you have to get the right grants in place, you have to make sure that the right product is available.”

While at first glance the WHA waitlist is daunting, “I think we’ve learned that over the years, the list, although it’s long, it doesn’t necessarily indicate the urgency of it,” Zucht says.

“You know, it’s not 1,200 people that are urgently looking for housing. If you put yourself on the waitlist, you’re creating an opportunity for yourself down the road.”

Whistler has long had a goal of housing 75 per cent of its workforce locally, and thanks largely to the WHA, has been able to meet it consistently.

But, of course, the waitlists are never satisfied.

“We bring on the new buildings, we tenant them, and people come off the waitlist, and then [new applicants] just add back on to it. So I wouldn’t say we’ve had a substantial impact [on the length of the lists]” Zucht says, adding that if anything, WHA units have had an impact on market rental availability.

“That’s where the majority of tenants come from, is market rentals, so they’re coming out of market and into what we hope is a more affordable and stable housing arrangement for them,” Zucht says.

“But the waitlists continue to be long and strong.”

The WHA is also in the process of implementing new property management software called Arcori PM, which came highly recommended by both BC Housing and the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, Zucht says.

“We are expecting this new property and information management software will provide more secure and improved operating capacity for our staff, and a more intuitive user interface [for applicants],” she says.

The new system will allow rental waitlisters to log in and view their status or manage their property preferences, she adds.

All existing waitlist data will be backed up and kept secure “until we are abundantly, absolutely clear” that all is working on the new system, Zucht says.

PATIENCE, GRASSHOPPER

If you’ve got questions about the WHA and its waitlists, or your place on them, the best thing you can do is ask.

“I think that it’s super important to advocate for yourself, and work with the WHA staff … All of the staff that we have at the WHA have been there for a long time, and they want this to be as fair and transparent as possible,” Ford says.

“Go straight to the source. Don’t talk to your friend of a friend who knows a guy that knew a guy, right?

“I think that the best messaging that we can send out about questions [related to discrepancies] are to go straight to the source, and to clear it up rather than assuming that there is something nefarious going on, because it’s certainly not the case.”

The other important messaging out of the WHA? Patience.

“We do have a regular turnover of units … and then when we’re bringing on these new projects, the opportunities are there to move in, so it’s just patience,” Zucht says.

“It’s not a lottery system in that regard, so it’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of when, and if you’re on the waitlist and your information is still up to date and accurate, you will get contacted.”

For Hannyliz Villafuerte, who moved to Whistler from the Philippines in 2008 and secured her first WHA unit in 2011, the waiting game for a two-bedroom rental lasted 10 years.

But in the coming weeks she’ll move into one of 45 units in WHA’s brand new Granite Ridge building on Cloudburst Drive in Cheakamus with her husband and daughter.

Having a rent-controlled WHA unit “really helped” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Villafuerte says.

“I’m really happy, but at the same time, I’m also nervous when everything goes back to normal,” she says, noting that the rent in her new unit is $900 more than what she pays now.

“But I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

Villafuerte (who is also on the WHA’s purchase waitlist—somewhere in the 300 to 500 range, she estimates) offers advice for her fellow waitlisters similar to Zucht’s.

“I would just say to wait patiently. It will come,” she says.

“It took me 10 years to wait for the right place for me, but I still believe that everything works out for your good.”