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Wake-up Call

New arrivals to Whistler are sold the same dream so many ski bums have chased over the years, but the resort’s housing crisis often comes with a rude awakening

After two pandemic years that largely kept foreign workers at home, Whistler’s rental market is as tight as it’s possibly ever been. Horror stories abound of frontline staff contending with unreasonable rental rates and, sometimes, the even-more unreasonable demands of overzealous landlords. Droves of young skiers and boarders land here, wide-eyed and hungry for adventure, inspired by the tall tales and jaw-dropping Instagram photos of friends and fellow countrymen who’ve taken the plunge. 

But is it the Whistler dream they’re being sold, or a bill of goods? Pique spoke with a batch of fresh locals here for their first ski season to find out. 

‘I don’t think I would have come if I knew how hard it was actually going to be’ 

One of the recent posts to Whistler’s popular housing Facebook group was by Ukrainian refugee, Yurii Boiko. Boiko moved to Canada with his girlfriend Julia to escape the war that broke out nearly a year ago when Russia invaded their homeland. Both have full-time jobs and are eager to settle down in Whistler. However, Boiko now fears this goal is far beyond his reach. 

“I moved to Canada because of the war in Ukraine. I was lucky to be out of my country when everything started. In 2015, I started my duty as a seafarer with Carnival Cruise Line. Whistler is one of the best spots for tourism in Canada, so it was an obvious choice with my experience,” he says. “However, it was more a feeling that made me need to move to the Whistler area. I didn’t know anything was wrong with the housing situation until a potential employer ended an interview when he heard I didn’t have accommodation.” 

Boiko eventually found a place in Pemberton, but his commute to work has become more and more treacherous as the weeks roll on. He worries each night that Highway 99 will be closed the following morning due to poor weather conditions. He longs to move in with his girlfriend so they can start making a life here in Canada, thousands of miles away from their war-stricken home.

“My girlfriend and I can’t move in together and are paying two separate rents. It’s extremely difficult doing anything, starting from grocery shopping and ending in staying in each other’s places. She’s in staff housing at the moment. I’m feeling annoyed and frustrated. I sent messages to over 20 people posting about housing and got zero replies from landlords,” Boiko says. 

“As soon as they put up a post, they get bombarded with millions of messages.”  

The Ukrainian has had his fair share of nightmare house viewings, with a particular property in Bayshores immediately coming to mind. “It was $2,000 for a tiny room that you can’t even stand up in. You share a bathroom with three other people,” he says. 

Greedy landlords aren’t the only pitfall in Whistler’s tight rental market. Boiko says he has been contacted by more than 20 apparent scammers since he began his hunt for a house. But it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for his adopted home. He says his love for Whistler and the people here has instilled in him a determination that cannot be quelled. He insists that the many obstacles in his way won’t deter him. 

“There’s always a good side. There are a lot of nice and sweet people, like my girlfriend’s neighbours in staff housing. They are always helpful and do their best to help us out,” Boiko says. “My co-workers in the Club Wyndham Cascade Lodge are the best team I’ve ever had in my entire life. Everyone makes you feel like you are in paradise. We’re not going to try to move anywhere else. We are planning on settling in this area. It’s just a matter of time.” 

Joe Brooke forced himself to stop scrolling through local Facebook housing groups before moving from England to Whistler for his first season here. Joe and his friend, Mason Flannery, were well aware of the housing crisis, but decided to push it to the back of their minds for as long as they possibly could. Nothing could have prepared them for the hardship their accommodation search would cause. 

“We were stressed before we ever got here. We couldn’t even look at that page. There’s also a part of it that reminds you you’re not the only person going through it. It makes you worry how you are going to find a place out of all these thousands of people,” Brooke says. 

“We were well aware of how hard it would be. We knew it was going to be hard but we didn’t know it was going to be like this.” 

Like countless others from the U.K. and Ireland, Brooke and Flannery felt compelled to follow their Whistler dream, a dream shared by adventurers from virtually every corner of the world throughout the decades. They feel more people should be aware of the realities that can come with pursuing this dream before packing their bags and booking a one-way flight. 

“I don’t think I would have come if I knew how hard it was actually going to be,” Flannery admits.  “I came here because of Brexit and I chose Whistler because I had a lot of friends here already. I am a ski instructor so I applied for staff accommodation. It didn’t get approved, so I started looking months in advance.

“We lived in a hostel for the first month. That first month was very depressing. You keep thinking that this is your own choice. Every single day there is a new person in your room. It’s hard to meet a new person every day and put on a happy face when you have so much shit going on.” 

A lack of personal and physical space are all too familiar problems for enthusiastic ex-pats arriving in Whistler. Homesickness and jet lag have to be quickly pushed aside as the relentless search for semi-permanent accommodation begins.

“We have a lot of gear because we are here for the season, but you end up living out of a bag and so does everybody else. So, the small bit of the room that is not taken up by beds is taken up by multiple suitcases and skis. We were so stressed all the time,” says Brooke.  

“We were so down all the time and we were constantly having to worry. You couldn’t relax because you felt like if you weren’t on your phone looking then you’re not doing the most that you can possibly do. We just stayed out all time. We would wake up in the morning and leave and then try and not to go back until bedtime. A hostel is a hostel but it wasn’t even cheap.” 

Soon enough the best friends became all too familiar with the housing scams so common in Whistler, and the importance of having local connections. 

“The first place I actually found was outed as a scam a few hours later in a Facebook group. The people had even been to the house and looked around. They had been to the house and were still going to potentially get scammed,” Mason says. “I also heard of a landlord who took the rent, gave my friends the key, then when they went to the house, it was the wrong key. You don’t know who to trust.”

Taking away the shine 

The boys chalk the eventual discovery of their $4,000-per-month studio up to being in the right place at the right time. But a cold December immediately put their new lodgings to the test, forcing the Englishmen to wonder if it was all worthwhile. “For the first few weeks, Joe was living on the window sill. Some mornings, he would wake up, pull the cover off to find frost on the blankets and curtains,” relays Flannery. 

The guys say their landlord acknowledges the rent is ridiculously priced, but someone will always be willing to pay it. 

Brooke’s back-up plan was to live out of a van he was planning to rent. He quickly learned this alternative was not exactly feasible. “By law, you’re not allowed to stay overnight in a vehicle in Whistler. There are so many people that park just outside of town. I don’t want that uncertainty every night, not knowing if you are going to get caught,” he says. 

The pressure of living up to the eminently Instagrammable Whistler dream took its toll on the duo, after having planned their sojourn here for so long. “It’s hard when your friends and family are asking you if you’re enjoying the ski season. You’re expected to say that it’s the best thing ever, but the reality is that you can’t enjoy yourself while you’re looking for housing. It just takes away the shine,” Flannery says. 

A group of five Irish arrived in Whistler in October with similar hopes, ready to work hard and play hard. Among them was Sam Power, an elementary teacher eager to take on the world-famous slopes. Sam tells Pique he believed he had given himself more than enough time to get sorted before the season started. “I knew it was pretty difficult to get housing but I didn’t really have a concept of what that meant. I came here thinking I’d get into staff accommodation,” he explains. 

The idea of leaving Whistler never truly felt like an option to the group, even as the days left on their Airbnb stay began to dwindle. 

“I had talked to people in other ski resorts like Big White,” Power says. “I didn’t really want to go to those, because the Whistler dream was the whole thing. In the Facebook group, people have just given up looking for a couch for a night or two just so they’re not out in the cold. I know people who have been here five or six years with permanent residency in Canada who are only having issues now.”

As it has for years now, the list of ingredients that make Whistler so special are the reasons so many dream-seekers will put up with such poor living conditions season after season. 

“The skiing is sensationally good. The nightlife is incredible. The people are incredible. I’m sleeping in the top bunk of a bunk bed and almost everyone I know is doing the same,” says Power. “You learn to get more economical with your space.”  

Sam’s best pal, Cian Murphy, felt unable to relax into Whistler life before all of the gang were safely housed and accounted for.  “I had heard a lot about Whistler’s housing crisis five years ago when I lived in Vancouver, but nothing had prepared me for how bad it was going to be this time around. I was stressed to bits because there were five of us trying to get a roof over our heads. The minute you’d get a sniff of a lead, it would go from under your feet,” he says. 

The Whistler trade-off 

The slipping away of lead upon lead eventually drove Rafael Toledo out of Whistler. A Google search of the best ski resorts on the planet led the Brazilian here in 2017. At the start of this year, he felt the need to call it a day and move to Squamish. It has become harder than ever before to find a bed, he believes. 

“I’ve been jumping from house to house like a grasshopper. I don’t think people understand what’s going on here at all until they come over. I really think I would be having a better time anywhere else,” says Toledo. 

Toledo shared tales of desperate renters ending up in strange and sometimes dangerous situations. He says one prospective landlord revealed his own strict code of conduct to Toledo in a series of emails. No offensive language, a nightly curfew and three months of “preventative discipline” were included in the deal (which sounds identical to the rules laid out to another local renter who shared his experience with Pique a couple months back). Weekly sitdowns would be arranged between the landlord and Toledo to review his behaviour—and to decide on any “disciplinary action” needed. 

The 34-year-old quickly bailed out when he says “moderate corporal punishments” were suggested. 

Another young hopeful had been planning for the ski season since May last year but still found the dream of Whistler unattainable. Speaking to Pique anonymously in order to protect her job prospects, the Englishwoman says she had sorted a job and staff accommodation with a local hotel but was told just 10 days before her arrival that a bed was no longer available. She says the hotel did offer her a job for the spring, leaving her in a strange no-man’s land for the winter. Luckily, she has been living with her sister in Seattle, but worries about the effect a similar cancellation would have on someone without a steadfast support system nearby. 

 “I had put nearly £2,000 into this move and it all fell apart in one [short email],” she says. “Without staff accommodation, the Whistler rental market is well above my budget, if there is anything at all. Facebook groups are absolutely swamped with people on the verge of homelessness/leaving their travels. It is very depressing.” 

While the young woman hopes she can try again for next year’s ski season, she is reluctant to put herself through the same emotional upheaval again. “This experience has affected my mental health in a negative way; living with so many unknowns has been stressful,” she says. 

“Luckily, I don’t have any dependants, but this situation could be a lot worse for families. It’s a real crisis. There are so many jobs available, but who will fill them when there are so few rooms and the ones that are available are so beyond reasonable pricing?” 

Franzi Müller had just arrived in Whistler when she spoke to Pique over the holidays. The German singer’s adventure was already off to a bad start, having lost all of her luggage on the flight over. However, she was excited to finally see the sparkling Christmas lights in Whistler Village, ski the world-renowned slopes and reunite with old friends. Müller believes that Whistler’s housing crisis has become par for the course for new arrivals. 

“My friends told me that housing was a huge issue but they all said they would instantly do it again. I’ve only ever heard good things and it would have been a shame if the housing crisis had put me off coming. The amount of posts puts you off even posting into the housing Facebook group. There are locals who have been here 15 years who are looking for a place. I feel like they should get somewhere over me,” she says. 

Like so many other 20-somethings, Müller doesn’t mind if things don’t always go to plan and is excited to see what comes next. “It’s the vibe and the people. Everyone is so nice and cool with having a rough place to sleep,” she says. 

All of those interviewed about their housing struggles in Whistler had so many things in common; a dream, an idealized view of the lifestyle, an acceptance that things do not always turn out the way you hoped, and a strong camaraderie unlike anything any of them had felt before. Similarly, when asked if they would do it all again, the recurring answer was usually the same: “Absolutely.”

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