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It’s ‘grim’: Whistler’s housing crisis continues to deteriorate ahead of another winter

With local businesses and the WHA striving to house workers, is it really worse than ever? It depends who you ask
whistlerlodgehostel
Whistler Lodge Hostel guests took a break from their pre-ski season housing searches last month to celebrate Halloween alongside their fellow new arrivals.

Whistler local Briony Valentine jumped at the chance to secure a windowless space north of the village that she describes as “basically a cupboard” ahead of the upcoming winter season, agreeing to pay just shy of $800 per month for the privilege. 

Though she’s “pretty sure” the lack of a window is a fire hazard, “I don’t want to give it up because I found it through a friend from work and it’s cheaper than $1,000 and includes all bills,” she told Pique

Fire hazard notwithstanding, Valentine’s current living situation represents one of the more positive outcomes people seeking housing in Whistler could hope to find this fall. 

Among other prospects? Sharing a sofa bed with a stranger for $1,600 per month (you’ll be splitting the one-bedroom apartment with another couple). A long-term lease with negotiable rent, if you’re open-minded to a clothing-optional home life. Sharing a studio apartment for $2,000 each. Scammers promising a too-cheap-to-be-true private room, so long as you e-Transfer a deposit in advance. (Hot tip: never send money to a landlord without seeing the property in-person first.) Space in a sauna for the low monthly price of $1,000. Trading accommodation for sexual favours. A repurposed garage that comfortably fits one couple for $4,500. 

Those are just a few of the head-spinning scenarios shared with Pique in recent days by new and longtime Whistlerites, some of whom have turned to tactics like printed flyers, door-knocking and even dating apps as they search for a place to lay their head this ski season. 

"People in this town are prepared to call anywhere home as long as it’s secure for [six] months,” Valentine explained.

Still, there are limits. Zane Phillips reached his earlier this week, when he stopped by a local fast-food joint for “a housing meeting” that he said left him “shocked” and “disgusted.” He has his own long-term accommodation locked in, but dropped by to scope out the opportunity for a friend who is not yet in town.

At the meeting, he found 10 other prospective tenants who had been invited to verbally duke it out for one of six remaining spots in a two-month lease. The price? $11,000 a month in total split amongst seven tenants, plus half a month’s security deposit, all  expected to be paid upfront.

“All people were visibly stressed, freaking out about the situation,” he said. 

“The scene I saw—quite honestly, it was grim,” Phillips said. “I sat down and said to these people, ‘Look, at the end of the day, there’s so many mountains in Western Canada you can go to, and you can come back here in summer.’” The meeting’s host “basically turned around and said ‘Look, there’s 11 of you, we need six of you, go ahead and figure it out.’”

The bizarre encounter represents “the harsh reality” Whistler employees are confronting, said Phillips. “I got up and said ‘nah, one less person.’ My friend’s been here before, we can figure something out.”

He added, “Literally, I was faced with girls that were crying, bawling their eyes out, just not knowing what’s going to happen and just in despair. It’s horrible to see. It’s horrible that this is happening.”

Scott Lynch also attended that meeting. Like Phillips, he ultimately took himself out of the running for one of the six spots—aside from being deterred by the nearly $4,000 in upfront fees, Lynch has a hostel bed secured for the next month and felt confident waiting for another offer. Unlike Phillips, he stuck around a little longer to see it through.

“I ended up pulling names out of a hat,” Lynch said with a laugh. 

The meeting wasn’t even the most unconventional housing offer Lynch has received since landing in the Sea to Sky about a month ago. 

Earlier this month, a young man responded to his “seeking housing” post on Craigslist. This young man told Lynch he had a spare room available in the home he shared with his grandfather for a more-than-reasonable price, but there were a few caveats: the grandfather’s house rules included no drinking, no smoking, no overnight guests, and a mandatory curfew. In addition to a three-month period of “preventative discipline,” breaking those rules could result in having electronics “taken away,” being grounded, and even “corporal punishment.” (Yes, Lynch has screenshots to back this up.)

“There were a couple of times where I was like, ‘Well, maybe if I just go in there for a month, like December, and then find something else … but then you kind of snap yourself out of it, and say, ‘no way, this is mad,’” Lynch said, adding, “I’m nearly 30 years old, I’m not having a curfew ... and as far as corporal punishment, he’s definitely not laying a hand on me.”

Most landlords won't threaten physical assault to keep tenants in line, but that doesn’t mean vulnerable Whistler renters haven’t dealt with other unreasonable behaviours from some people with space to offer.

For Matthew Kuzek, that meant spending the summer in a two-bedroom shared with a “landlord”—he’s since found information leading him to question whether that individual owns the property he was renting out, or if they were solely the main leaseholder—who Kuzek said attempted to raise the rent beyond what they’d agreed to, asked for rent to be paid days before the first of the month and allegedly withheld Kuzek’s damage deposit after Kuzek said he was moving out at the end of September, one month earlier than he initially planned, to an employee-restricted property too good to pass up.

Since the acting landlord never signed the contract he drew up, Kuzek's understanding was that his lease agreement was month to month, he said.

WHISTLER’S HOUSING CRISIS: WORSE THAN EVER? 

Raise the issue of Whistler’s current housing woes, and a longtime local or two will usually seize the opportunity to hark back to their own experiences living in a closet in the ’90s, assuring newcomers “it’s been like this for decades.”

Not to burst their housing bubble, but Whistler’s longstanding accommodation crunch indeed appears to be getting worse by several measures. 

In Sept. 2010, the back section of Pique featured six full pages of classified listings advertising long-term accommodation in Whistler. In last week’s Pique, there was a single listing advertising a two-bedroom in Pemberton.   

In terms of online ads, there were 240 Craigslist results for rental accommodation in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton in Sept. 2016, according to archived notes from Pique editor Braden Dupuis. (A handful came from people seeking rentals.) Among those, a one-bedroom suite in Whistler Village for $2,200, a two-bedroom in Creekside for $2,700, a three bedroom Creeside duplex for $3,800 and several one-bedroom suites well under the $2,000-mark. 

A cruise through Craigslist’s long-term accommodation section today yields about 130 Sea to Sky corridor listings, most of which are located in Squamish and many of which are subleases available on a short-term basis only. Among the listings within Whistler’s municipal boundaries: a studio listed for $3,995, a one-bedroom for $5,200, and a four-bedroom for $12,000, scattered among ads warning of scams and seeking housing.  

Whistler’s 2021 Housing Needs Report, meanwhile, found the number of local households spending more than 30 per cent of their gross income on “unacceptable housing” doubled from 2011 to 2016.

With Whistler’s population swelling to 13,982 in 2021, according to the most recent census data (up 19 per cent from 2016, when it stood at 11,746), the number of people searching for housing is also growing accordingly. Figures provided by the administrator of one local Facebook group dedicated to Whistler rental housing show the number of members grew from 17,788 on Nov. 17, 2021 to 21,844 (not including another 11 pending members) on Nov. 12, 2022. 

If you ask Kylie Rivett, “this year is a little different.”

Over the last seven years working for Whistler Lodge Hostel, the last four-and-a-half of which she has spent as its manager, Rivett has grown used to the fall rush of newcomers who make the hostel the first stop of their Whistler adventure. Whistler Lodge offers a fall rate of $250 per week with a minimum two-week stay, part of which is refunded if guests find long-term accommodation before their booking runs out.

“We have no real off-season,” she said, adding that the 40-bed hostel had two available spaces on Tuesday night, Nov. 15. 

“It’s similar in that we have the same amount of people that are looking as opposed to the last few years,” said Rivett, “but it seems that this year … what they’re getting is just all so expensive.”

When navigating the resort’s housing crisis, hostels like Whistler Lodge are a good starting base to meet your fellow locals—and, potentially, new roommates, said Rivett. 

“As discouraging as it is, when you stay at a hostel, you automatically have 39 new friends,” she said. “Everyone’s in the same boat and it is a really good way to put down roots.”

Still, the housing situation is “heartbreaking in so many ways,” Rivett added. “It’s pretty wild. There’s so many great people here, just trying to find somewhere to live.”

BUSINESSES, WHISTLER HOUSING AUTHORITY STRIVING TO FILL GAPS

The Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) has been tasked with providing—and managing demand for—secure, affordable and long-term employee housing since it was established as an arm of the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) in 1997.  

As of September 2022, there are 378 active, eligible applicants named on the WHA Rental Waitlist, down from 524 the previous year. 

Eighty-four per cent of current applicants are single or couple households, while 15 per cent of households have dependents. Just 1.8 per cent of waitlisted applicants are groups of unrelated adults seeking housing as roommates. 

The WHA Ownership Waitlist, meanwhile, is comprised of 1,072 households waiting to purchase an employee housing unit, representing 1,513 Whistler employees. Of those households, 72 per cent are singles or couples without dependents; 28 per cent are households with one or more dependents, and 7.5 per cent are seniors aged 55 years or older. 

The WHA completes annual renewals of its Rental Waitlist each July and its Ownership Waitlist each January to ensure waitlists are up-to-date and filled with qualified, eligible employees waiting to rent or purchase a WHA unit. (Since the last rental waitlist renewal in July, 44 more applicants have joined WHA’s Rental Waitlist, bringing it to a total of 422 as of November 2022.) 

According to the RMOW’s community monitoring dashboard, wait times for employees on those lists have trended steadily upwards since 2018, reaching an all-time high of 5.6 years in 2021. (“It is worth noting that the wait time is for all people on the waitlist, which includes those that are in WHA properties already, so the 5.6 years may be higher than actual wait time for first-time buyers,” the RMOW cautions.)

WHA general manager Marla Zucht said the corporation saw 41 of its rental units turn over and 28 ownership units re-sold this year to date. 

Not included in those figures are the 100 new WHA units, located on Mount Fee Road in Cheakamus Crossing, sold to Whistlerites earlier this year. Of those new homes, 46 were occupied this fall, while owners will take possession of the remaining 54 homes in February or March 2023, Zucht explained in an email. That brings WHA’s total number of employee-restricted ownership units to 1,187 (or 4,272 beds) and 1,082 rental units (2,700 beds). There are currently “6,972 occupied Employee Housing Beds for Whistler’s population of approximately 14,000,” explained Zucht. “But, yet of course we want and need more!”

Still, with its lengthy waitlists, the WHA isn’t currently in a position to house the typical seasonal employee arriving in Whistler armed with a newly-activated, two-year working holiday visa. With that in mind, some local businesses are looking to fill in the gaps where they can. 

The Scandinave Spa, for example, currently has 27 beds reserved for its staff. The spa purchased a house in Brio earlier this fall that will bolster its employee housing supply with an additional eight beds for this winter, plus three more next summer following a renovation of the suite. Upon completion, that represents enough beds for 54 per cent of all spa staff, including managers, and 64 per cent of its operations staff, Scandinave spokesperson Michelle Leroux explained in an email. 

“We will also be adding a rental property from January for six months that will add an additional three beds,” she added. With all of its staff housing currently full, the spa is still on the lookout for another rental property this winter. (Leroux encouraged any interested property owners with available space to contact hr.whistler@scandinave.com.)

Whistler Blackcomb is also making moves to increase its staff housing supply. Its long-awaited Glacier 8 building, which Whistler council approved in August, is currently in the “pre-construction phase,” WB COO Geoff Buchheister told Pique in an interview earlier this month. 

Resort officials and contractors are focused on applying for the next round of building permits, he said, and hope to break ground this spring.

Once finished, the six-storey, 66-unit apartment complex could house up to 200 seasonal workers. “It’s an exciting project,” Buchheister said. “Obviously housing solutions don’t come quickly, but we’re really grateful that we’re in the pipeline on this, in partnership with the RMOW, and we’re going to be able to deliver new beds soon.”

While the RMOW has made great strides in growing its long-term employee housing supply and working toward the 1,000-bed housing target it set back in 2017, the municipality has so far shied away from adopting the shorter-term, emergency-style measures some other Canadian destinations have recently employed.

Ucluelet, on Vancouver Island, for example, launched a pilot project in 2021 allowing people to temporarily live in RVs amid its own housing shortage, while Canmore, Alta. implemented a seasonal, permit-based “Safe Park Pilot Program” this summer, designed to give local employees who reside in vehicles a safe place to spend the night. The program offered permit-holders access to 40 designated stalls spread across two private parking lots and two municipal lots.

In Whistler, sleeping or camping in vehicles is not allowed on any roads or parking lots. Illegal campers found contravening the bylaw could face fines of $100 per night. 

Camping is only permitted at designated locations, including Riverside Resort, Whistler RV Park and Campground, Cal-cheak Recreation Site, and Nairn Falls Provincial Park in Pemberton.