For some time, Sean Easton has been banging the same drum. The co-executive director of local non-profit and supportive housing provider Zero Ceiling had been lobbying for the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) to broaden its mandate to encompass the entire spectrum of the community’s housing needs, and in particular, the vulnerable, underserved population on the lower end of the market.
But at a certain point, Easton had an epiphany: the WHA (nor any one organization, for that matter) can’t realistically meet all of the diverse needs of Whistler’s housing continuum, something both the WHA and Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) have echoed in the past.
“That’s where I see the opportunity with the Whistler Valley Housing Society (WVHS). I see [it] as potentially being, if you will, a bit of an umbrella organization that can generally represent the non-profit housing sector and work to meet the gaps that currently exist within Whistler’s housing,” he said.
“Our vision that we landed on is to provide and advocate for a broader spectrum of housing opportunities for the Whistler community, and our mission is addressing the diverse housing needs of the Whistler community to ensure no one is left behind.”
A non-profit, volunteer-led organization formed in 1983 by a group of local employers concerned with rising real estate prices, the WVHS served as something of a precursor to the WHA. A year after it was launched, it produced Whistler’s first fully subsidized affordable housing unit on Sarajevo Drive in Creekside, and in subsequent years throughout the ‘80s it facilitated the development of a handful of other resident-restricted projects.
In recent years, the WVHS had largely become inactive, with current acting chair and RMOW Councillor Cathy Jewett calling it “kind of a placeholder board.” But with the COVID-19 pandemic exposing the glaring cracks in Whistler’s housing landscape as numerous residents were forced into isolation, and the society’s operating agreement with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) coming to an end, the WVHS has shifted its focus in a major way.
“For a town our size, and with the kind of temporary residents that we have here, we’re really lacking some of the social supports that are needed,” said Jewett.
“The narrative we have to tell is that not everybody in Whistler lives in a mansion with an infinity pool. I think there’s a real lack of understanding about how people live here and the kind of wages they earn.”
Recent months have also seen a shakeup at the WVHS board in an effort to inject it with new blood like Easton.
“[Whistler Community Services Society director] Jackie Dickinson had let me know that the operating agreement with the CMHC had come to an end, so maybe there were opportunities for them to reinvigorate their work,” Easton said of joining the board four months ago. “I let them know I’d be coming with a pretty strong advocacy approach. I wasn’t mincing my words.”
Exactly what the society’s reimagined role will look like is tough to say in these early stages, but Jewett said it would “not be dissimilar” to the WHA’s role in developing workforce housing, only for supportive housing, which can take various forms.
“Supportive housing isn’t necessarily just frontline workers,” Jewett added. “It can also mean people who are perhaps unemployable, so we can’t always think in terms of employees because there are more needs out there than just that.”
The WCSS, which has historically held a position on the WVHS board, has seen the diverse housing needs of Whistler firsthand throughout the pandemic.
At about this time last year, WCSS was forming a partnership with BC Housing to offer spaces for locals with COVID-19 to isolate temporarily. Today, the organization continues to house people through referrals from Vancouver Coastal Health and local medical teams.
In recent months, WCSS has also begun offering temporary housing for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness and helps connect them to an outreach worker and more long-term solutions. WCSS has provided 93 nights of accommodation since September.
That comes on the heels of the Howe Sound Women’s Centre securing, in October, a safe house for women fleeing abuse—something the organization had lobbied for in Whistler for years—made possible thanks to a large donation from an anonymous donor.
“Once we do a program of this nature, we realize there’s so much work to do. It doesn’t stop here and it sheds light on all the other challenges or places we need to do better on, so the learning is endless,” said Dickinson, noting that emergency housing remains one segment of the local housing spectrum that needs serious attention and one that WCSS is committed to working on.
Of course, as is always the case with housing, financing is the multimillion-dollar question.
“Talking to people that know about things like this, it’s very difficult to finance because you’re dealing with short-term leases, so you don’t have the assurance of a steady cash flow,” Jewett said.
“The WCSS has a real understanding of where our vulnerable populations are here. On the other hand, if we do build a building, we have to make it pay. These are the other balances we have to look at.”
But as both the provincial and federal governments have expanded funding opportunities for a broader spectrum of housing in the pandemic, Easton believes groups like the WVHS and RMOW are well positioned to capitalize.
“Part of the reason the WHA has been so successful previously in granting programs through BC Housing and the CMHC is it really aligned with the provincial and federal government’s work around housing. A lot of it is middle-class and families and the WHA serves that, but we’ve seen a shift in the provincial and federal governments to move more towards more marginalized populations and lower-income housing opportunities,” he said.
The WHA has, since its inception, been closely associated with the WVHS, and executive director Marla Zucht, who previously sat on the WVHS board, said she is committed to continuing to work with the society to facilitate additional housing for the community.
“The WHA is pleased to hear about the new direction being taken by the Whistler Valley Housing Society. I know the former Board of the WVHS had been suggesting the WVHS should focus on providing housing for some of the more vulnerable populations in our community and determine how the Whistler Valley Housing Society can best serve the community. The former WVHS Board had also been recommending the need for the Whistler Valley Housing Society to focus on stronger governance protocols and strategic planning for the WVHS,” Zucht wrote in an email.
“I believe these goals are now being targeted and are underway with strong and passionate leadership being provided by Councillor Cathy Jewett and with some new energy and increased capacity on the Whistler Valley Housing Society Board of Directors.”
Key to Whistler’s housing evolution will be to gain a fuller understanding of the needs of the community’s most vulnerable, an effort that will take time, patience and trust, Dickinson said.
“We have to build trust in those relationships with people who can give us insight into how we move forward. We have to listen. We have to listen to their perspectives and their views of where they currently are now and how they want to sustain and continue to be part of this community,” she said.
Easton has pushed for better data on Whistler’s housing needs and lobbied the RMOW to bring local non-profit housing providers to the table for an upcoming housing needs assessment that was mandated by the province for completion by April 2022, and every five years thereafter.
“That is a concrete step to understand how to meet these needs. That is a request I’ve made formally now,” he said.
“I’m concerned that without looking somewhere different, we’re going to get the same result we always have.”