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Maxed Out: Examining solutions to the Whistler housing crisis

Max explores potential solutions to Whistler’s neverending housing woes—but believes the answers will only be found in honest, robust engagement.
Max housing solutions june 2022
Solving Whistler’s perpetual housing crisis will require honest, robust engagement.

Let’s see... where were we? Oh yeah, solutions to Whistler’s housing “crisis.”

Observing current thinking along these lines suggests there are three avenues to pursue. First is the somewhat childish response to monsters in the closet. If I cover my eyes—metaphorically speaking—I won’t see a problem and therefore don’t need a solution. If this seems absurd, it may come as a surprise to discover it was a major theme in previous administrations ‘round these parts. More on that later.

The second response is more along the lines of following the status quo. Whistler has been successful at housing the number of workers it has aimed for—albeit not nearly enough, many, particularly those with businesses in sore need of workerbees, would say—and current market conditions notwithstanding, has had moderate success at doing so affordably. So why fix what ain’t broken?

The third response is to give up any hope of keeping a lid on growth and the town’s ultimate size. Abandon all bed unit caps, ye who enter here. This Grow Baby, Grow scenario would see the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) petition the province to expand its borders north and south and, while we’re dreaming, embrace what at least one proponent sees as the solution to our transportation problem—over-and-under the highway thereby doubling its capacity. No, I’m not kidding, and I don’t believe he was either, scary as that may sound.

I’m told the current bed unit cap is somewhere around 69,000. I remember when it was but a wee toddler of only 52,000. That it has expanded is due, in part, to including employee-restricted beds, formerly not counted, and BU Creep. 

Whatever the number is, any artificial limit to growth has an incontrovertible effect. It limits supply, which, in the face of continued demand, leads to higher prices. I was recently simultaneously horrified to hear a small condo in Gondola Village was listed in excess of $900,000 and happy for a friend who owns one. 

Worse, at least for the political landscape, the only way a limit to growth has any chance of working is if it limits all growth, not just a metric like bed units. Limiting all growth means not everyone who wants to live here can live here. Sorry, we’re full. Get on the I Want to Live in Whistler waitlist.

It also means not everyone who wants to start a business here can do so. Unless, perhaps, it’s a one-person business, because we’ve just limited the potential pool of workerbees. 

That this model has no precedent I know of doesn’t mean it can’t work. But believing it will is beginning to feel more like faith than reality.

But let’s assume we don’t abandon the concept.

Whistler is a victim of its success. People want to live here. People with great wealth want to buy and build homes here. They aren’t necessarily the people who want to live here but they want a home here. Some retire here. Some just want to visit. Some want to work here... from home... for businesses far away.

Some people want to live and work here. They’re probably not the ones who will buy homes here. At least not until their number comes up on WHA’s waitlist.

Market housing has changed since Whistler was a misty-eyed dream. People who built homes with suites decades ago are dwindling in numbers. If they haven’t already decommissioned their suite whomever buys their home certainly will.

The RMOW can’t force people to either maintain or build suites for workers. What they can do is tax owners of market homes to help fund the construction of employee housing. Whenever I float this idea, some people complain it unfairly harms Vancouverites who helped build the town, many of whom have moved here in their retirement. But does it?

They’ve enjoyed the increasing success of this town. They’ve enjoyed the skiing, the Valley Trail, the expansion of goods and services available here. And most importantly, they are enjoying an unprecedented increase in value of their homes.  

Seed money used for employee-restricted housing initially came from the muni’s employee service charge bylaw. As inadequate as it was, it was levied against businesses since businesses were where the demand for employees came from. But with the changing demographic of market homeowners—and especially with the explosion of trophy homes only infrequently lived in—those very homes generate demand for many employees: contractors, labourers, service workers, servers, the entire landscape of workerbees. 

So why shouldn’t they pay?

Worried about fairness? Okay, how about an opt-out tax. If you live and work here for a Whistler business, you can dodge the tax. If you have a suite and house employee(s), ditto.

People who own Resort Land already pay a tax—by another name—to Tourism Whistler. They pay to market the resort, which benefits them because they own Resort Land property. We can debate the continuing need to market Whistler now that it has profile, but let’s not. Let’s consider a surcharge that feeds funds for employee-restricted housing. Again, owners have benefited from and driven demand for those underhoused workers.

These crazy ideas only begin to address employee housing. As outlined in the provincially-mandated housing report, which only skims the surface of new housing needs in town. It doesn’t address social housing, emergency housing, seniors’ housing, or housing for vulnerable populations. 

These housing needs are the monster in the closet variety. There has been an unstated policy within the RMOW to pretend they don’t exist. Until Covid struck, there was also a belief at the most senior staff level that there was no need for a food bank in Whistler. 

Social housing policy is envisioned in Whistler’s Official Community Plan. But one advocate for social housing said the response of senior RMOW staff was just because there is a policy doesn’t mean it has to be done. This is true. Perhaps the textbook example is the award-winning emergency response plan the City of New Orleans had. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it seemed no one in charge had read it, or if they had, didn’t think it had to be done just because it was in the plan. 

I don’t pretend to have answers. I don’t know if our Whistler Standard means we can’t hope to build affordable housing. I don’t know how we close the gates, halt business expansion or house vulnerable townies. 

I believe the answers will only come through a robust engagement of the people who live here. We need to have an open and freewheeling dialogue on our limits to growth and the implications thereof... or whether we have limits. We need to decide who we’re going to try and house and how we’re going to do that. If we can’t figure out how to live with success, we probably won’t have to for very long. 

Maybe that should be the next council’s No. 1 priority.