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Whistler Housing Authority comes of age with 1,900-unit legacy

Employee housing not an election issue for the first time ever

Craig Koszman owns a "little piece of paradise" in Whistler.

It's not big; it will never appreciate at the pace of free market housing; and when he sells his one bedroom plus den, the next owner must be an employee in town.

But that doesn't matter. He's not planning on selling any time soon.

Koszman considers himself one of the lucky ones. Back in 2006 he had been on the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) waitlist for more than a decade, turning down other units until the Nita Lake Lodge 44-unit project, which suited him to a tee, came up for sale.

"It was well worth the wait," said the 47-year-old Koszman.

It would seem the oftentimes-desperate wait for employee housing, price restricted so Whistler employees can buy into the secondary real estate market, is now over.

Where once the WHA housing list was hundreds strong and moving at a snail's pace, forcing some serious soul searching as people decided if they would stay renting in the resort or move out to buy real estate, now more than 1,000 locals have been housed in the last year alone.

The housing conundrum, which for years plagued the community, even making headlines in the Lower Mainland newspapers with stories of landlord price gouging and atrocious living conditions, appears to have been solved. And housing, which has long been a battle cry of council hopefuls every election cycle, including the last, was remarkably a non-issue in the 2011 election.

"It's a great place to be finally for the community," said WHA general manager Marla Zucht.

She remembers going to the annual Welcome Week dinner every year and hearing the horror stories of new arrivals who were paying $1,000 a month for a shared room because housing was in such demand, and desperation, as the ski season drew closer, reached fever pitch.

"I always just felt so bad for those new employees," said Zucht.

Last week at the dinner she didn't hear any of those same stories.

Because of the ripple effect of adding more WHA employee housing in recent years, the pressure has been released on the rental market. In the last year, with the advent of hundreds of units after the 2010 Olympic Games (the athletes' village at Cheakamus Crossing) as well as the Rainbow housing project, Whistler residents have moved out of rental suites, freeing up that market for many seasonal employees. Rents have come down as a result.

"I'm thrilled at where Whistler is now but I think we owe a lot to circumstance," said former WHA general manager Tim Wake, who shepherded the organization through some of its toughest times.

"We were very fortunate to make it work with the 2010 Games and as a community we set that up to be a significant legacy of the Games. These legacies don't always work out so well so I'm thrilled that that did. But that was really the big surge that put us over the top."

The road to get to this point, however, hasn't been without its challenges. And every project was a lesson learned for the next project moving forward. Appreciation formulas have changed; housing layouts have been tweaked; and even the once maligned waitlist has been revamped.

Whistler is now the poster child of affordable housing.

Zucht, and the municipality's political leaders, are asked to present the WHA's successes to other communities, and tell Whistler's story. Later this month, the WHA will be featured again at the BC Non Profit Housing Association's annual housing conference as a case study of a successful housing provider of affordable housing.

But there's nothing special about Whistler, said Zucht. Other communities can do it too. It just takes the vision and the will.

"Whistler had that strong political will - leadership and conviction to do price restrictions and it's so entrenched now within our community and accepted," said Zucht. "And I think that for us that's really made a huge difference for families that they have an option that's affordable to them for home ownership."

Whistler is housing 82 per cent of its workforce, above the community's target of 76 per cent. Earlier this year Zucht delivered a report to council - the Annual Employer Housing Needs Assessment - which revealed that for the first time in its 14 year cycle, housing was not one of the major issues employers had identified as a reason for a lack of being able to retain staff.

Now the WHA is functioning like a well-oiled machine.

Money from the 232 rental units in the WHA's inventory flows into the organization to the tune of more than $2 million annually. That pays for the long-term mortgage debts on the units, the small WHA staff as well as the annual operating expenses like snow clearing and reserves payments.

It is a self-sustaining organization that has never taken money from the taxpayer.

Instead, the start up money came from developers. Over the years during Whistler's development boom-time their contributions to the employee-housing fund grew to $6 million. The WHA took that money and built the rental units - like the buildings on Seppo's Way and at the bottom of Lorimer Road. That has allowed it to have a permanent revenue source going forward. And that is critical said WHA chair of the board Michael Hutchison.

"We have in fact taxed the business that is transitory and temporary (development) in order to create a benefit that is permanent," said Hutchison

"The housing authority has gone from being funded from a temporary source to being funded by a permanent source. The community should be proud with what it has achieved.

"When all the rental units are paid off the income will be substantial."

The housing waitlist meanwhile is about 475 strong. About half of those on the list are already in housing.

"The pressure valve is off of them because they are housed, but they're still staying on the list," said Zucht. "They're waiting for another opportunity."

When asked if there is an oversupply of employee housing now due in large part to Rainbow and Cheakamus Crossing Zucht said she doesn't believe that's the case.

"The units when they do come up, they still sell very quickly to the waitlist," she explained. "It's not like they're sitting out there waiting for a purchaser to come along. By and large they're still selling."

In a way, it's a system that has been perfected over time.

In the beginning land was given to Whistler residents in a lottery system. It was below market value to allow them to get their foot in the real estate door. That was great for the first owner, but not for the ones who came after.

"Those people won the lottery in two ways," said Wake. "They got a home and huge capital gains."

The WHA also tried putting occupancy-only restrictions on developments like Eva Lake and at Lorimer Ridge. Those did not stay affordable for subsequent purchasers either.

As projects came on, the WHA experimented with different price restrictions formulas. Several of the bigger projects like Bear Ridge in Spring Creek and 19 Mile Creek in Alpine were originally tied to the Greater Vancouver Housing Price Index. Those homes took off in value as the Vancouver market spiked.

A few years ago, council decided it had to do something - the units were becoming unaffordable for Whistler employees.

The units were designed to be a "nest not a nest egg" and with prices increasing at rapid rate, it was getting harder for employees to buy in to the price restricted market.

In a controversial move, council changed the formula for subsequent re-sales of the home, tying it instead to the Core Consumer Price Index (CCPI), which appreciates at a much slower rate. The formula changed once the homes sold.

That move has not been without its problems.

Roughly six homes in those complexes have been on the market unable to sell because the homeowners are still looking for the top dollar under the original price index. Those that have lowered their price have been able to sell. The top dollar for those units for example is about $475,000 under the old formula. Similar units in the complex have been selling for about $375,000.

For most of the other projects, however, owners are getting the top resale dollar.

"That still continues to be the case for I'd say 90 per cent of the units," said Zucht.

The Rainbow development on the north side of town was also a learning curve.

Wake said that didn't turn out the way he had hoped. It was more expensive than the WHA had hoped, with single-family homes and duplexes the crux of the development.

Rainbow, unlike most of the other employee housing projects, did not sell out right away. Admittedly, it's a different kind of project, at the high-end of the "affordable housing" spectrum and requires construction financing, which is harder to get than regular financing. But over time, Whistler residents have been buying in and loving their new location. About a dozen units remain unsold.

"I barely consider it part of our affordable inventory," said Wake. "It's basically only affordable for people who are trading out of market (housing.).

"I don't think it was a mistake. It was a real struggle. It's kind of overshadowed by the fact that we got the athletes' village. That carried us across the finish line. It just wasn't so critical about Rainbow anymore."

One of the lessons learned from Wake's tenure with the WHA, and that he takes with him to his new role as CEO for Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver, is that affordable housing is hard to do with single family housing or even duplexes.

"It really is challenging in any case but you have your best chance doing multi-family and apartment and condo," said Wake.

The other critical piece he said is there has to be buy-in for the program from the owners.

"The most important thing is that people understand exactly how this program works and what we're trying to achieve before we start, before they move in, not after they move in," said Wake. "And that was the challenge with those early projects, is that people really didn't believe the restrictions were going to hold, they really believed they were just getting a market house at a cheaper price.

"This is truly non-market housing."

The "sudden" addition of hundreds of units also had an impact on the market housing.

"There was huge pent up demand because there wasn't a lot of real estate at that price point during the period of time we're talking about," said Pat Kelly, owner of the Whistler Real Estate Company. "I think it's had some impact at the lower price points. It's created some availability in free market housing under half a million dollars because people have found that they can get more for their dollars in these new choices than the could in the open market."

That rippling effect filtered out of the community to Whistler's neighbours as people made the choice to stay, or move back from other communities.

"I think it definitely had an impact on Squamish and Pemberton," said Kelly. "Those markets are still dealing with that."

With the housing "crisis" solved, the WHA has been focusing on the next evolution of the housing spectrum - seniors.

There is a municipally-owned piece of land slated for senior's development at Rainbow but in the last design phase the WHA was only able to get four expressions of interests from seniors for the eight townhomes.

"We just found that that the demand actually wasn't strong enough to proceed," said Zucht.

It continues to be on the radar.

In the meantime, however, she is spending time sharing Whistler's story with other communities.

Outsiders may believe Whistler is different, that there is a different development playing field here that makes this kind of housing possible, but Zucht said that simply isn't the case.

The crux of her message is that communities can't just create affordable housing for the first owners. There must be price restrictions and covenants on the homes in perpetuity.

Whistler learned the hard way. Its legacy is now 1,900 units strong, including rental units, price restricted units and occupancy restricted units. Thousands, like Koszman and other families, call the WHA projects their homes.

"I can't reiterate enough to these communities that that's just a waste of time (not having price restriction in perpetuity) because at the end of the day they're not left with a legacy of affordable housing."