About 18 years ago, Kate Roddick rolled into Whistler with a pickup truck, a U-Haul trailer and a baby in tow, ready to put down roots and build a life in the mountains.
It’s a dream she likely wouldn’t have been able to realize if it weren’t for the Whistler visionaries who had the foresight to prioritize workforce housing.
Now, she’s grateful to return to the employee-restricted Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) property she calls home after each workday. As senior manager of projects, employee services and community relations for Whistler Blackcomb, Roddick spends many of those days figuring out how to accommodate a specific segment of the resort’s workforce: the first- and second-year seasonal employees who keep Whistler running.
For many, “they’re coming here and living away from home for the first time,” Roddick told the audience of approximately 200 gathered at the Whistler Conference Centre to talk housing on Thursday afternoon, April 27. “We want that to be a safe and fun and great experience.”
In 1988, the ski resort built its first dorm-style employee housing building at Blackcomb Mountain’s Base II. Today, a cluster of seven buildings covers the Glacier Lane lot—two of which are used by the Fairmont Chateau Whistler—with Whistler Blackcomb planning to break ground on its eighth building in the coming months. Apartment-style accommodations in Brio and West Side also contribute to the company’s ability to house about 30 per cent of its workforce.
“It’s creating a place where young people can be safe, they can thrive, they’re close to the business, they can turn up on time,” she said. “And part of the responsibility of that style of housing is to make sure we have the wellness component as well.”
For Whistler Blackcomb, that means employing wellness coordinators to facilitate a robust list of health resources, but “it’s also important that it’s affordable,” Roddick added. “Ten years ago, [rent] was $350 a month. Today, it’s $405. It’s about making sure that we’re meeting those components together, with a functional and safe building. It’s very institutional style—it’s like university dorm-style housing, but it can withstand a bunch of 20-year-olds living in it year after year after year.”
The WHA’s supply of employee-restricted properties like Roddick’s and employer-provided housing like Whistler Blackcomb’s are two strategies the resort has continuously leaned into to help house the vast majority of its workforce. In a place where, according to Statistics Canada’s 2021 census, only 5,597 of the resort’s 10,065 private dwellings are permanently occupied by usual residents, and where market properties are among the most expensive recreational homes in the country, about 85 per cent of Whistler employees lived locally in 2019, according to a 2022 housing needs report.
But despite those innovative strategies, Whistler is still dealing with a crippling housing crisis. That same housing needs report last year found an average market property in Whistler is unaffordable for more than 90 per cent of the community’s residents, while even a suitably sized, price-capped WHA property was financially out-of-reach for 84 per cent of the resort’s single-person renter households at the time.
And it’s not alone. The same problems plague communities across the continent, from rural mountain towns to big cities.
How can communities work together to improve that current state of affairs? Which potential solutions already exist? Which would realistically work for Whistler? What kind of effort is needed to implement them?
If you ask Roddick, “I think that it will take more visionary conversations, collaboration, relationships, tough conversations, tension, things that work—and it will still be imperfect,” she said. “And we will continue to keep trying to make it better.”
Those conversations and collaborations were exactly what the Whistler Institute and the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA) were hoping to foster by hosting the multi-panel discussion where Roddick made those remarks. Called “A Roof Over Our Heads: Exploring Mountain Resort Housing Possibilities,” the discussion took place at the CWSAA’s Spring Conference, held in Whistler this year from April 25 to 27.
Organizers enlisted two separate panels of experts to explore strategies here in the valley and further afield, as well as Pique columnist G.D. Maxwell to moderate the two-hour discussion.
The history of employee housing in Whistler
The first panel focused on Whistler’s approach to housing over the years—“what’s been done, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked in the never-ending quest for affordable housing,” as Maxwell explained. It featured panellists Steve Bayly, the Whistler Housing Authority’s first general manager, and Duane Jackson, former Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) councillor and chair of the Whistler 2020 Development Corp. (WDC), alongside Roddick.
In 1983, shortly after Bayly got his start in B.C.’s real estate development and construction industry, the province’s wider real estate market was struggling with 20-plus-per-cent interest rates and a tanking economy.
In response to rising real estate costs, local leaders formed the Whistler Valley Housing Society. With the help of funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the group built a 20-unit apartment building in Creekside called Whistler Creek Court. “That building recently paid off its mortgage, and now that society’s able to move on a 30-unit, brand-new apartment building that’s getting built for them by the WDC in Cheakamus Crossing,” Bayly said. “It’s pretty cool that a bunch of years go by and you can do it all again, with equity and surplus cash flow.”
But in its earlier years, the society was challenged by the fact that it “didn’t have permanent management,” Bayly explained. “It was run off the corners of people’s desks. It would get momentum and then lose it.”
That was around the same time a group of Whistler councillors travelled to Colorado to assess the housing situation in the Rockies. “They came back and the consensus in Whistler was we wanted our workforce to live here. We wanted to have a vibrant community where people didn’t come from out of the valley to work and only the wealthy live at the top of the hill,” said Bayly. “So, there was a real effort to make that happen.”
The municipality decided to direct a fund of about $6 million collected from works and services charges—not from taxpayers—towards employee housing, roping in a team of real estate development experts to create the RMOW-owned Whistler Housing Authority in 1997.
The group established a few guiding principles: The WHA would A) have professional management; B) look after all the housing agreements, covenants, options, and right of first refusals; C) advocate for resident-restricted housing in Whistler; D) would not use the $6-million fund to subsidize creation of housing by others, but would rather use that money as equity, along with conservative borrowings, to build and rent housing for its own account; E) be self-funded, not subsidized by the town’s taxpayers, with the RMOW not required to guarantee any WHA debt; F) employ independent property managers to oversee day-to-day operations; and finally, G) endeavour to use the longest fixed-term mortgages and shortest amortization possible to mitigate risk and grow its portfolio as quickly as possible.
Finding land was a challenge, but shovels were soon in the ground, and employee-restricted homes and apartment buildings started popping up across the resort. Today, according to the RMOW’s website, Whistler currently tallies about 2,270 units of affordable rental and ownership housing, providing more than 7,000 beds for the community’s workforce and their families.
An Olympic dream
The WHA’s efforts received a major boost when rumours started swirling about a little event called the Olympics coming to town.
“Jim Godfrey, who was the [WHA] administrator at the time, understood the importance of cheap land, and with the bid for the 2010 Olympics secured 300 acres from the province for affordable resident housing,” said Bayly.
Jackson, an architect by trade who also holds a master’s degree in real estate development, joined the WHA in 2002, the year before the International Olympic Committee approved B.C.’s bid to host the Winter Games.
Godfrey, the mayor, council and staff “started to really try and appreciate what that opportunity was and what their risk may be, financially or reputationally,” said Jackson.
There were a lot of logistics to consider, from where to build an athletes’ village and how to zone the land to what facilities or transportation might be required. The primary decision at hand was to decide whether to build “a temporary athlete village or, potentially, a permanent village, and what would that mean in terms of housing, and a legacy for Whistler” Jackson recalled. “And it was decided: go big or go home.”
Officials soon realized the daunting task of creating a permanent village was too big of a project for RMOW staff to carry out off the sides of their desks, he added. Instead, they created the WDC.
About a third of the total legacy lands Godfrey successfully negotiated is in Cheakamus Crossing. That’s where the WDC created Whistler’s Athletes’ Village on 50 of those acres, a feat made possible by funds from the Vancouver Organizing Committee, plus a $100-million loan. The Athletes’ Village hosted 2,400 athletes, spread out over 436 units in 2010, before welcoming local families to move into Cheakamus Crossing’s Phase I later that year. About 220 units were sold through the WHA that year, two-thirds of which were townhouses, with apartments making up the remaining third.
“At the time, there was also a private sector development at Rainbow, so a lot of housing came on the market,” said Jackson. “We thought we’d sort of broken the back of housing and there was a lot of absorption. By 2014, we realized the tourist economy was back, and housing was an issue. By 2018, it was the No. 1 election issue.”
Five years ago, that newly elected council invited WDC to get back to work on Cheakamus Crossing’s 38-acre Phase 2 lands. As of today, the first 100 units have already been delivered to WHA residents, with about 86 more currently under construction and another 100 or so slated to be built in the coming years, funded by a market development.
With resort wages failing to rise at even a fraction of the speed interest rates and construction costs have in recent years, “certainly new projects are not going to be as affordable as the old ones,” Bayly admitted. Those new projects currently need to command higher rent or sale prices, “but 20, 25 years out, they’ll be affordable. I don’t think we should stop building additional capacity because the new stuff’s more expensive than the old.”
Where does Whistler go from here?
From seasonal staff to established locals, there’s “a full range of housing that we need to plan for,” Jackson said. It’s why WDC, in collaboration with the RMOW’s planning department, is starting to look ahead to five, 10, and 15 years down the road, “making sure we’re able to address the housing needs, and the evolution of the transition of housing for the community, to provide longevity.”
Suites have helped house Whistler employees ever since the resort municipality’s first elected officials allowed the construction of rental units on single-family lots in the early ’80s, as Bayly recalled, making Whistler one of the first jurisdictions in B.C. to do so.
Officials of the day limited those suites “to not more than two bedrooms and 800 square feet, and I think the zoning prescribed that they couldn’t be used for tourist accommodation,” he said. “And these suites were a great part of our workforce housing for many years. Lately a lot of them have been lost due to gentrification and other things, but they’re still a good source, and I think a source that should be encouraged.”
In more recent years, much of the collective discussion about affordable housing in B.C. focuses on increasing density. Experts like Bayly and Jackson agree that in Whistler, increasing density by tearing down a 4,000-square-foot home on an already pricey lot and replacing it with a pair of 2,000-square-foot new builds, for example, won’t do much to combat the affordability crisis. Smaller suites, however, could.
“I think [Whistler’s Official Community Plan] speaks to redevelopment of some of the older neighborhoods, and reconsidering the type of development that goes on in those neighbourhoods,” said Jackson. “There is the opportunity to consider rezoning bonus density to allow and create additional or alternative types of on-site or off-site affordable housing.”
Adding suites to properties with enough space, parking or transit to accommodate one is low-hanging fruit. “There’s really no cost to that, and it may actually be an incentive to a property owner for other reasons than economic,” he said.
Those ideas “are on the table for the planning department to consider, from a regulatory point of view,” Jackson added.
For Whistler Blackcomb, responding to its workforce’s current needs means getting creative, as Roddick explained. The resort launched its Employee Housing Incentive Program this year, reaching out to settled Whistler Blackcomb employees with secure housing in Whistler, Squamish or Pemberton to see if they might have a bedroom available to rent to a new hire.
“What that creates is not only utilizing that bedroom—maybe it’s an empty-nester bedroom—but also creating a really nice connection between our tenured employees and a new person to town. It’s a new way to try to look at how we can utilize beds that maybe are being vacated or shifted around,” she said. “Is it a perfect solve? No, but I think it’s one of the options we can start to look at.”
What about the demographic in between those seasonal working holiday-ers and established long-term locals, or as Maxwell coined it, “the missing middle”—for example, newer-to-town locals needed to keep health-care, policing, firefighting and “other essential services” running?
It’s but a dent in the rental market, but up to half of the new Whistler Valley Housing Society’s incoming 30-unit project in Cheakamus will be designated for just that: eligible essential workers. The other 15 units, meanwhile, will be slated for clients of Sea to Sky social-service and government agencies dedicated to community well-being on a case-by-case basis.
The view from other mountaintops
The communities of Whistler and Vail, Colo. share more than a mountain operator and a large population of Epic Pass holders. As George Ruther, director of housing for the Town of Vail, told the crowd on April 27, housing challenges don’t look all that different south of the border.
“When it comes to Vail, we don’t have a housing problem. In fact, we’re a community of about 5,300 people, and we have 7,200 dwelling units. That’s one-and-a-third homes per person in the community,” he explained. “Our problem is occupancy. Seventy per cent of those homes sit vacant on a year-round basis. The vast majority of those homes are occupied less than two weeks of the year.”
Ruther joined Sun Peaks Mayor Al Raine and the RMOW’s recently-hired head of climate action, planning and development services, Dale Mikkelsen, onstage for the afternoon’s second panel. The three men were tasked with exploring housing strategies that have worked in other jurisdictions, like Vail’s InDEED program.
The program incentivizes homeowners to deed-restrict existing properties so those homes can only be occupied by local employees going forward. Since its creation in 2018, the town’s housing department has increased the total number of deed-restricted homes in the community by more than 50 per cent under Ruther’s leadership, and is on track to meet its goal of acquiring 1,000 additional deed-restricted homes by 2027.
“Sometimes the most complex problems are solved by the simplest of solutions,” said Ruther.
Surrounded by forested wilderness on all four sides, “Vail may as well be an island out in the ocean,” he added, meaning, “we couldn’t build our way out of this problem if we chose to.” Vail officials “looked at the issue as being, ‘how can we better utilize the homes that we already have in the community?’”
An initial public sector investment of US$13 million helped Vail acquire deed-restrictions on 180 homes, securing year-round occupancy for about 385 people.
Closer to home, in Sun Peaks, housing challenges appear closer to the ones Whistler dealt with decades ago. Luckily for that resort municipality and its 1,500 residents, its first and only mayor happens to be responsible for helping develop Whistler into the resort that exists today. Raine negotiated the master development agreement with the province for Blackcomb Mountain, sat on Whistler’s first council in the mid-’70s, and played a key role in creating the Whistler Resort Association, now known as Tourism Whistler.
With a population of about 100,000 living within an hour of Sun Peaks’ slopes and higher-than-average unemployment during the winter months, resort leaders counted on a chunk of that population driving up to work on the mountain during the colder months. But as more destination visitors started visiting Sun Peaks Ski Resort after the town earned mountain resort status in 2010, “all of a sudden there weren’t as many employees as we thought,” said Raine.
Following Whistler’s model, officials encouraged property owners to build and rent out suites within their homes, before discovering B.C.’s “Residential Tenancy Act makes that very, very difficult,” said Raine.
Faced with homeowners reluctant for a second kick at the landlord can after dealing with challenging seasonal tenants, Sun Peaks—like Whistler—encouraged business owners to take on rental units and fill them with their own employees.
Sun Peaks currently counts about 2,000 total employees, said Raine. “At the present time, employers have built about 550 units of employee housing,” he said, estimating about 500 of the resort’s employees live in nearby Kamloops.
Now, the municipality is in the initial phase of creating non-market housing akin to the WHA’s. “The other question we’re wrestling with is: who deserves non-market housing?” he said. “We need to get the rules right from Day 1.”
Sun Peaks studied Banff’s need-to-reside policy for property purchasers, but is currently looking into possible partnerships with developers. That could be accomplished by the municipality lowering costs and fees where it can, but “we’re still struggling,” said Raine. “It’s not easy. The biggest challenge we face, obviously, is without employees and people living in the community, businesses can’t function.”
Could SFU provide outside inspiration?
Before beginning his new role with the RMOW this spring, Mikkelsen worked for 15 years as the director of development and chief operating officer for Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) UniverCity, the sustainable community located adjacent to the academic institution atop Burnaby Mountain.
The university first opened its doors in 1965. As the Lower Mainland’s population sprawled and housing prices stretched into unaffordable territory, “What we realized was Simon Fraser University was struggling with many of the same challenges that face resort towns,” Mikkelsen explained.
“Much like Whistler and probably much like Vail, it’s very difficult to attract excellent personnel and individuals that will be committed to the university environment for the long-term, because they immediately look at their housing options, and they’re very, very limited,” he added.
Two decades ago, the university decided to investigate how it could use its undeveloped land adjacent to campus to address those issues. Officials decided to build a sustainable community, with a mix of market housing and affordable housing for faculty, staff and students, that went beyond the scope of the university’s existing on-campus residential program. The university set up a trust to develop that property on the institution’s behalf and invited private developers to form partnerships.
In an effort to build equitable housing, then-developer Van City Enterprises agreed to work with SFU on the project with the understanding it would earn about half of the industry’s standard profit. For a typical Lower Mainland developer, that standard usually falls somewhere around 20 per cent.
Taking into account “construction costs, land costs, profit, and returns to [SFU’s] endowment, we realized that you can deliver a project in a partnership agreement that ultimately would result in homes that were approximately 30 per cent below market value,” said Mikkelsen. “That was the agreement we put into place, is that these homes would then be marketed internally—because there’s savings on marketing and those components as well if you’re marketing to an internal audience or a waitlist per se, much like the Whistler Housing Authority.”
SFU worked with Van City Enterprises to create a legal covenant for each property, requiring each subsequent resale of that property to be priced 30 per cent below its current appraised market value.
The goal isn’t “to leave people in affordable housing,” said Mikkelson. “The goal is to give people the opportunity to start a life in a community, and then move into regular market housing, so we felt a need to watch that property to be able to escalate with the market, so that they’re not falling further behind.”
Following both panels, all six experts converged onstage to answer a wide array of questions, posed virtually through Slido. Panellists considered queries like “Do we need to shift our focus from building more homes to utilizing existing availability? And could we entice homeowners to rent out suites?” before the event wrapped up, though they weren’t able to get through the long, meandering list within the 30 minutes allocated.
How to incentivize homeowners to rent their properties was one of the trickier questions to answer within B.C.’s legal parameters, but there are ways if officials are willing to think outside of the box, said Bayly. Between federal and provincial sales taxes and property transfer fees, “If there was an affordability criteria, and they could get these taxes back or save them by complying with that, I think there’d be a huge incentive to help people rent those rentals,” he opined.
And what about the oft-proposed solution to build work camps in Whistler? To Mikkelsen, “The notion of temporary [housing] is sort of bothersome, because it’s a half commitment to housing,” he said. “I understand that it makes an expedient opportunity, but so often the challenge with temporary housing or temporary portables in schools is they quickly become permanent, and they’re built in a substandard way that in the long run isn’t, perhaps, the quality housing we’re looking for.”
A land analysis study exploring what land is still available within municipal boundaries and gauging whether “there is opportunity or not on those lands” is more worthwhile, in Mikkelsen’s view.
Despite the many questions that remain unanswered amid Whistler’s persisting housing crisis, local panellists agreed the community would be even worse off without the work that’s already been done to protect employee housing in the valley. For that, Whistlerites can thank the many previous leaders who enlisted the right experts, fought hard with federal and provincial governments for land and capital, and balanced bold decision-making with risk mitigation.
Without that inventory, in Bayly’s view, the resort would be without more than a few locals who serve as the glue holding Whistler’s community together. “A lot of people that are employed but don’t have seven-figure incomes couldn’t afford to live here, so they wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I think we’d have a situation where you can’t attract a schoolteacher or a fireman or a building inspector. They just wouldn’t be part of our community.”
Maxwell’s musings about the WHA and WDC’s work have graced Pique’s back page frequently over the years. He’s chatted with countless locals who’ve managed to find secure rental housing, or purchase an employee-restricted property at an affordable price.
“Everybody says exactly the same thing when I ask them about their new home and that is ‘Now I can get on with my life,’” he told the crowd. “That’s what that kind of housing means to people in this town. They can get on with their life. They can put down more permanent roots. They can have children. They’re not burdened by a crushing mortgage. They can actually even take vacations occasionally. That’s huge.”