Marla Zucht, general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), opened her presentation to elected officials this week with a caveat that seems to accompany any discussion of housing in this community: We can’t do it alone.
“What I’m going to present to you today is an overview of the Whistler Housing Authority’s 2023 corporate plan,” she said at the Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 7. “And spoiler alert: I am not going to be laying out for you how we can fix all of the community’s housing problems this afternoon.”
Even with the continued challenges around affordable housing, particularly at the lower-income end of the spectrum, there’s no denying how significant the WHA’s contributions have been. Since its founding 25 years ago, the municipal subsidiary has facilitated the creation of roughly 7,000 employee-restricted beds, and has, for years now, hit its stated target of housing at least three-quarters of the resort’s workforce locally.
And yet, for a variety of reasons both inherent to the resort as well as external pressures bearing down on tourism destinations across the globe, Whistler’s years-long affordable housing shortage persists—and the situation is dire. For context, a provincially mandated municipal housing needs assessment released last spring reiterated the need for more purpose-built rental housing, as well as transitional and emergency housing for the community’s most vulnerable. Ultimately, the report concluded that the market alone could not be relied on “to provide these affordable, suitable, and adequate housing units for Whistler’s workforce,” as home prices have reached a point where the average market property is unaffordable for more than 90 per cent of residents, while market rental properties have dwindled as fewer owners look to rent to locals long-term.
That’s where the WHA comes in.
“I don’t need to tell you that housing access and affordability are very real challenges for people living in our community, and that housing challenges facing our community are not going to be solved in one year or in one political term,” Zucht said. “However, just as Whistler has done over the last 25 years, collectively, with frequent and meaningful input from the community and government partners, we will continue to use impactful and innovative solutions, whether it’s creative funding and partnerships or novel housing designs and policies to keep moving forward on providing more housing opportunities for our workforce, so members working in our local community can remain living in Whistler.”
During Tuesday’s presentation, Zucht laid out the WHA’s core priorities for the year. First and foremost is continuing work with the Whistler Development Corporation (WDC) on the planning and development of additional employee housing in Cheakamus Crossing, particularly on Lot 2, where two new rental projects are planned that, once completed, should add 78 units to the resort’s southernmost neighbourhood. The WHA also plans to facilitate the occupancy of the 54 new employee ownership units slated for 1360 Mount Fee Road in Cheakamus Crossing this spring.
With the new housing in Cheakamus and a small handful of private-sector developments, later this year Whistler is expected to hit the five-year target the municipality set in 2017 to add 1,000 new employee beds. Since that goal was established by the Mayor’s Task Force on Resident Housing, 748 new employee beds have been created in Whistler.
That will also help trim the WHA’s lengthy rental and ownership waitlists, which, by the end of last year, sat at 466 and 1,095 people, respectively (applicants can appear on both lists simultaneously). Zucht added that WHA’s annual ownership waitlist renewal process currently underway would “likely decrease [the number of applicants] by a few hundred in the next month.” A total of 121 ownership units were offered to the WHA waitlist in 2022, while 42 employee rental units turned over last year as well.
Looking ahead, the challenge, as it often is with affordable housing, will be financing.
“Right now, it doesn’t look like there’s much in the way of grant support, but certainly preferential financing support, which is most likely the route that we will be needing to go for acquiring financing for new development,” Zucht said.
“But it’s not likely to be in the form of a non-repayable contribution.”
Public education and engagement are two other priorities for the WHA in 2023. Zucht said the organization would continue to “provide education to raise awareness and greater understanding and compliance with the various employee housing covenants” registered on new projects to ensure WHA’s inventory is being used for its intended purpose. Audits conducted last year resulted in the turnover and sale of six WHA homes to applicants on the ownership waitlist.
The organization continues to digitize its processes, which will include a new “smart ownership” database with new portals on the WHA website designed to enhance usability and data collection. The data will be used to inform the municipality’s long-term housing strategy.
For more information, visit whistlerhousing.ca.