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Maxed Out: Digging deeper on the Whistler housing report

Max digs deeper on a recent housing report and comes up with an unsurprising conclusion: the housing situation in Whistler sucks.

Prior to the election of Trump and the pandemic—still trying to decide which was worse—my reading material was heavily skewed towards non-fiction. So little time; so much to learn. But as reality, or what passes for it, became so ugly under both plagues, I found myself slipping through the event horizon of fiction. I particularly began to devour authors of old mysteries where things were screwed up beyond belief but unravelled and solved in a couple of hundred pages.

I’d stopped reading and writing fiction decades ago when I realized I couldn’t make stuff up that was weirder than what was actually going on around me. Still can’t. But as weird gave way to brutal, fiction was the salve that made things a little easier.

Roundabout way of saying last week’s dip into nonsense was a refreshing breather for me and I’d hoped to indulge in frivolous piffle again this week. 

But then came the housing report. Another black hole with a pull I’m finding stronger than my ability to escape. 

In case you didn’t read the 69-page report—a requirement mandated by the province and to be repeated every five years—or the one-page article in last week’s Pique, let me sum it up as briefly as possible. The housing situation in Whistler sucks. 

While tempted to file under Sun Rises in the East, the report underscores problems far more daunting than the lack of affordable housing in Tiny Town. It rests on a foundation far more complex than the lack of, in no particular order, “below market rentals, social housing, transitional and supportive housing, short-term shelter and other underserved housing target groups.”

Lost in the doom and gloom of the report is one shining success, albeit of the Great, So What Have You Done For Me Lately variety. And that is the finding that 85 per cent of employees live locally. At least they did in 2019. That is 10 percentage points higher than the benchmark goal of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA). (Full disclosure: I currently sit on the board of WHA, but am not representing that group in anything that follows.)

Virtually everything in the housing report comes as no surprise to anyone who has both lived here very long and takes any notice of what’s going on in town. The latter requirement cited lets a lot of the local population off the hook because, increasingly, they neither know nor care what’s going on in town. 

The report is hard to interpret in some ways. For example, it keeps referring to Whistler’s housing market while, in actuality, there are three distinct Whistler housing markets. There is, for lack of a better term, Resort Lands Market Housing, all those properties that pay fees to Tourism Whistler. They are all the hotel-like condos and timeshares and the big homes on the flanks of the mountains. Some of the condos allow owners to live in them year-round; some don’t. 

There is the Market Housing Market, homes of all descriptions built on land that is part of the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) but are not part of Resort Lands. They’re the ones with average selling prices above—in many cases way above—$2 million and some condos and townhouses headed that direction.

Finally, there is the Non-Market Housing, also known as employee-restricted housing. Most of that is thought of as WHA housing but includes a smattering of non-WHA housing that carries some form of employee/retiree restriction.

This triumvirate of housing markets is an interesting mix and provides both headaches and potential actions in beginning to tackle what is increasingly termed our housing crisis.

But wait. There’s more.

While not officially a fourth housing market, there is also the nearby but outside RMOW boundaries housing, like WedgeWoods. And then there’s the Van Nation and Squatting in the Woods housing non-markets, but they won’t become important until the latter starts a wildfire that threatens the town. 

What’s really missing from the report—other than solutions—are two underlying forces, both of our own making, neither under our control.

The first is our bed unit cap. The fact we still have a bed unit cap is a presumption on my part. I don’t know if we do, if it’s real or if anyone has the political will to slam the doors shut once we’ve reached whatever it is these days and whatever loopholes it contains.

But let’s face it, if there is still a bed unit cap—a quaint throwback to an earlier time when local town builders were concerned with the valley’s “carrying capacity”—it can only have two consequences: Market housing of both types will become more and more expensive, lacking draconian political intervention, and Non-Market Housing will never catch up with demand as long as it’s counted within the bed unit cap.

Both consequences are premised on two demand factors. People will still want to make Whistler their home, and people will still open new businesses and require staff. Right now, the latter is superfluous, since there doesn’t seem to be sufficient staff to run existing businesses. But that rarely seems to stop people from opening new businesses.

Peeling another layer off the onion, both consequences are a consequence of Whistler’s success. In the Before Time, people gravitated to Whistler to ski. They discovered non-ski season was pretty great here as well. They stayed. They built a town. They created a Resort Municipality. They dreamed about it becoming a World Class, Four-Season resort. They succeeded. They’re getting old. Dying. Leaving.

People who come here now might come here to ski. Many come here because it’s both a success and it’s still beautiful, albeit increasingly crowded. Many are retired. Many are remote workers. Many are homeowners but not residents. Many have destroyed or decommissioned suites the Before Time people found helpful, useful or both. Many don’t care how much housing costs.

Other people, younger, poorer, are Troopers—here for a good time, not a long time—except like so many former Troopers, they get sucked in by the same things the rest of us got sucked into. Whistler is still a great place. They want to stay. They need housing. Market rentals are becoming extinct. They’ve always been insecure. 

Despite our success on so many fronts, we can’t build enough Non-Market Housing for all of them. Certainly not fast enough. Right now, not affordably enough. And that doesn’t begin to address the Other Housing the report cites as needed. Housing for seasonal workers, social housing, emergency shelter, and all the rest. 

So what are the solutions? Damned if I know. Doesn’t mean I won’t explore some next week.