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Maxed Out: What will a social housing policy look like in Whistler?

'It's not going to be easy'
What's next for housing in Whistler? Getty Images

Back in my suit-and-tie days, one of the first tasks laid on me as a strategic planner in the international division of Leo bank was to distil the strategies of the five largest money centre banks in the U.S. Trial by fire.

This being a time before the internet, it meant a lot of digging in various libraries for annual reports, newspaper stories from the New York Times and Washington Post, and talking to people from those banks by phone.

One thing became abundantly clear early on. The banks’ strategies weren’t necessarily what they said their strategies were. Lining up what they actually did, versus what they said they did or were going to do, left me with a Venn diagram with varying but never large amounts of overlap.

“So what?” I hear you say?

Last week, the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) chief administrative officer, Ginny Cullen, summarized the strategic directions that came out of council’s two-day strategic planning retreat. Top priorities: Housing, Smart Tourism, Climate Action and Community Engagement. C’mon, what else did you expect?

I’m particularly happy to see community engagement on that list, because one of the topics under housing is going to require a lot of community engagement. No, not how much housing gets built. Who’s going to live in that housing.

Within the realm of employee housing, there’s already a lot of debate around whether employers should somehow receive some priority access to rental units to, in turn, use them for their own employees. Topic for another day.

But under the broad heading of housing, there are two main objectives: expedite employee housing and develop a long-term housing strategy for Whistler.

It’s that latter objective that is going to be interesting. It embraces the complex question of who is going to be housed and how that’s going to happen. It focuses on employees, seniors, and vulnerable populations.

Let’s set employees aside for the moment. In the spirit of full disclosure, I currently sit on the board of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA). But I write as a resident of Whistler who has followed, been involved in, lives in and has strongly advocated for employee housing for the last 25 years, not as a board member.

WHA’s mandate, its mission, is to provide employee housing. That’s straight from the WHA corporate plan. Employee, in this case, includes retirees and former employees. Given the reality of the waitlist process, that definition may be read to specify long-term employees; more about that below. WHA’s sole shareholder is the RMOW.

There is currently no RMOW housing policy aside from the mandate held by WHA. Whether that changes or not as a result of this strategic objective, it is how things stand now.

There is no policy regarding housing for seniors other than the seniors priority ownership housing in the WHA inventory. Qualified seniors can be waitlisted for any WHA rental or ownership housing like anyone else who meets the qualifications.

There has been, at various times, efforts to get dialogue started on broader senior housing, included assisted living housing. For the most part, assisted living housing falls under the mandate of Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), and is currently organized on a regional basis. Assisted living accommodation is available in Squamish, not Whistler. Whether there is ever a critical mass of seniors in need of such housing locally is within VCH’s purview, which is not to say it’s something the RMOW can’t take on.

Social housing, which is a broad term for what this objective is going to be grappling with, falls on a continuum—a long continuum. It embraces, for example, people who have lived here a long time but have lost their market rental housing through gentrification and can’t find anything remotely affordable to enable them to stay in town.

It includes people who are experiencing a marital breakdown and have no ability to house themselves, either physically due to the acute shortage of market rental or financially due to family income now needing to cover two housing arrangements.

It includes people fleeing domestic violence.

It includes underhoused people.

It includes people with special needs, be they physical, cultural or psychological.

And it may or may not include seasonal employees. To date, seasonal employee housing has been pretty much left up to the business community, particularly Whistler Blackcomb. A number of businesses in town have purchased market housing for their employees, but other than that—and the not terribly successful Home Run program—seasonal employees are left largely to the vagaries of market rentals. And we all know how well that’s going.

So some form of seasonal employee housing may well be embraced by this objective.

Oh, and generally, social housing depends on some form of government subsidy.

While it can be argued the employee housing managed by WHA is social housing, the program—acknowledged and studied by other towns both nationally and internationally as a successful model—has largely operated without direct, local taxpayer subsidies. Grants from senior levels of government and funds associated with the Olympic Athletes’ Village have been utilized, but Whistler taxpayers have not been direct sources of funding.

It’s hard to imagine that will work for the other housing outlined above. That being the case, it’s imperative the RMOW leverage its goal of community engagement to tackle this strategic objective. It will take a village to make this kind of housing a reality.

And it won’t be easy. There are a lot of dogs in the race, and no one wants to see their dog trampled. Employers are going to be keen on housing that keeps them in workers. Seniors are going to be keen on housing that lets them age in place and stay in town where their roots are deep.

Whistler Community Services Society, Zero Ceiling, Howe Sound Women’s Centre and others will be strong advocates for emergency shelter, housing for other-abled people, low-income housing and a smorgasbord of other housing needs.

Not every kind of housing this community needs is likely to be embraced by this objective. Nor should it, necessarily. There will be strong opinions about who and how many should be helped. About who shouldn’t be. The deserving and the undeserving. It will be contentious and emotional. There will be winners and losers.

Overlaying all of it will be the finite supply of bed units in Whistler, assuming the long-touted bed unit cap still exists and/or will survive this process. Every bed unit allocated to one need will be unavailable for another.

At the end of the day, I reported on what I thought those big banks’ strategies were based on what they actually did. A few years from now, we’ll have a pretty good idea what the RMOW’s strategy is based on what’s been accomplished.

It’s not going to be easy.