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Maxed Out: The Fourth Dimension—Part III

[W]ith any luck, council will undertake the hard, thankless work of engaging the whole community to help decide who is going to be housed, in what form, where and when as we step closer and closer to build-out.'

Time has come today.”

-Joseph Lamar and Willie Mack Chambers

I promise this will be the final instalment, the money shot, of this three-week missive and thank those of you, all half dozen, who’ve stayed with it this long.

And as much as I’d like to opine on our municipal council’s—all but one—pants-down kowtow to Vail Resorts’ timeline for the new, unnecessary Fitz lift, that’ll have to wait until next week.

Among the current municipal council’s strategic objectives are developing a comprehensive housing strategy and enhancing community engagement. So far, they’re batting zero on the latter—only because there are no negative scores allowable—and the former is likely to be a Hydra-like beast. If they’d like to enhance their score on community engagement, this would be a great place to start.

As of this moment in time, the only housing policy the RMOW has is embodied in the operations of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA). Employee and retiree—as those terms are defined in WHA’s criteria—housing is the only form of housing embraced by the municipality.

The objective to develop a more comprehensive housing strategy will attempt to tackle the larger world of social housing. It will have to answer the tricky question of who will be house—through government initiatives—in the Whistler of the future.

It would be hard enough to come up with a list of winners and losers in any town. In a town with long-held limits to growth—Whistler’s bed cap—and with both limited and crushingly expensive land, it’s likely to be a thankless undertaking that’ll wind up pitting competing interests against each other.

While the housing administered by WHA is, in the broadest sense of the term, social housing, it has, thus far, been built without direct, local taxpayer subsidies. But housing captured by the broader concept of social housing is generally owned, subsidized or financed by governments and non-profits. It’s designed to be affordable for low-income individuals and families, and embraces populations such as seniors, people with disabilities, marginalized people, those experiencing crises such as family breakup, domestic violence, homelessness... the list goes on.

Historically, social housing initiatives have included non-profit housing, public housing, co-ops, supportive housing and rent supplements for low-income individuals and families. And while the success of social housing efforts have been varied, one aspect remains implacable: there is a bottomless and growing need.

Thus far, it’s been easy for successive municipal councils to avoid wading into the crosscurrents of social housing. The focus has been on employee housing, and anything else was left to another level of government. And while that may eventually continue to be the RMOW’s strategy, it’s clear the impetus is for senior levels of government to download some part of the responsibility for social housing to municipalities.

At the same time, interested groups are lining up to get their dog(s) in the race.

Businesses in town are encouraging the muni to build more and more employee housing. They’d love to be able to lease housing themselves for the use of their own employees, thus tying their worker’s housing to continued employment.

They’d also like to see a broader definition of employee housing embraced. While the current WHA model seeks to house long-term employees—leaving seasonal employee housing up to businesses themselves—they’d like the muni to step up and tackle the current labour shortage by targeting housing for seasonal workers.

There is always an undercurrent of desire among Whistler’s seniors for the RMOW to play a more active role in providing housing for seniors and even some form of assisted-living housing, something that’s always been deemed a provincial responsibility.

Zero Ceiling has been vocal about hoping any more expansive housing strategy would provide an opportunity to grow their efforts.

The Whistler Community Services Society has an extensive list of housing they’d like to see made available in town, including emergency shelters for victims of domestic violence, temporary housing for residents who have lost their market rental, housing for people undergoing relationship breakups, and more.

A group of concerned parents, Whistler Independent Supported Housing, would like to see the muni step and provide housing for their adult children, who have grown up in Whistler and have some form of developmental disability.

Groups not heard from directly but who are likely to find a voice when it comes to housing opportunities and issues would include the Whistler Multicultural Society, which provides valuable assistance to immigrants and newcomers to Whistler. And elsewhere, there is a growing voice among LGBTQ+ communities for better access to housing.

So, what’s a little big town like Whistler to do?

While the status quo is unlikely to remain viable, it is all there is until something replaces it. Therefore, it is the current front runner in this race and it’s not outside the realm of possibility it will continue to be for some time.

One reason the status quo becomes more untenable is because nature abhors a vacuum. With no policy in place, others may fill the void left by inaction. The Whistler Valley Housing Society is currently contemplating the purchase of a building on the drawing boards of the Whistler Development Corporation down in Cheakamus. Their choice of tenants, currently leaning toward essential services—such as medical staff, firefighters, etc.—would constitute a beachhead in Whistler’s social housing policy.

But with any luck, council will undertake the hard, thankless work of engaging the whole community to help decide who is going to be housed, in what form, where and when as we step closer and closer to build-out. There may even be some spirited discussion about whether there is, in fact, still hard limits to growth left or whether that is a quaint, outdated concept that simply doesn’t fit Whistler’s future.

And if that seems daunting, pause for a moment to contemplate who is going to foot the bill for all of this. The current housing policy embraces employees, people who work, people who have sufficient income to afford the housing being built.

Broader social housing doesn’t. Someone is going to pay for it. Someone is likely to be you. Kind of sharpens the focus, doesn’t it?

Whatever comes out of the effort, it’s all about Whistler’s fourth dimension—what kind of town we’re going to be in the future. No one 20 years ago thought we’d be a town where locals couldn’t afford local housing, where most of the market housing being built was owned by people who don’t live here, and where our youthful energy would morph into wistful memories.

Choose wisely, grasshopper.