In the final days of 2020, the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) bylaw department received a complaint that a suite in a Spring Creek property was not being occupied as required by a qualified local employee.
About a week later, bylaw notified the owner on Tynebridge Lane that they were not in compliance with their housing agreement, and on June 10, 2021, the owner submitted an application to discharge the mandatory suite covenant—at a cost.
Dating back to a rarely used cash-in-lieu procedure from 2004, the owner had the option of paying nearly $200,000 to the municipality’s employee housing reserve fund to effectively buy out the suite.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, held over Zoom, some elected officials raised concern over the precedent such a cost structure would set in Whistler’s red-hot housing market.
“There's a reason that these covenants were put on: it's to create housing,” said Councillor Cathy Jewett. “This actually doesn't replace anything. Yes, it helps fund it, but it doesn't replace the actual unit and it also increases the erosion of neighbourhoods.”
The main issue surrounds how the cash-in-lieu amount is calculated. In 2004, the council of the day set it at $150,000, to be adjusted annually to the Consumer Price Index, which in 2021, puts it at $198,409.73.
“In a housing market where prices are 20- to 30-per-cent higher, it seems like this is a very good deal for this person,” said Coun. Ralph Forsyth.
Ultimately, council passed an amended motion at its Jan. 11 meeting calling for municipal staff to review the current cash-in-lieu procedure and establish a policy for future modifications to discharge mandatory resident employee suite covenants. But the greenlight came with a hitch: by passing the motion, it meant the almost $200,000 buyout would still go ahead. Only Jewett opposed, worried of the “domino effect” it could create.
The RMOW has received a recent inquiry from someone interested in a buyout of their own after hearing about the Tynebridge property, but there have only been two other instances since 2004 of owners actually discharging their mandatory employee covenant for cash—one on Khyber Lane and one on Hillcrest Lane.
“So this isn't something that's going to all of a sudden snowball, I don't believe, having been on the [Whistler Housing Authority board] and whatnot since then,” said Coun. Jen Ford.
The mandatory suite covenant established in 2004 was the result of a subdivision of lots two years earlier in Spring Creek; 13 of 26 lots are required to provide an employee suite, an effort in part to boost Whistler’s affordable inventory.
Ford said there has been some confusion around the policy in the public sphere.
“This is one of those policies that a lot of people mistakenly have pointed to over the years saying that all of Whistler’s market housing has required these suites. That's not true,” she explained. “There are only certain neighbourhoods that had this, certain subdivisions that had this—and it didn't necessarily create the housing stock that was envisioned.”
While supportive of the review, Coun. John Grills stressed the importance of balancing Whistler’s clear need for employee housing with a cost structure that incentivizes homeowners.
“At the same time as staff look into this, it's important that it makes sense and that it's not so restrictive that people just don't exercise the ability to buy it out and just not use the space for either a suite, or the housing reserve doesn't get the money,” he said. “So there's a fine line between making this work for both parties.”