After a prolonged period of searching, a local non-profit dedicated to fighting youth homelessness has secured accommodation thanks to a partnership with the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), an agreement that local advocates hope signals a shift in how the community supports and understands its housing needs.
Zero Ceiling, which helps under-housed youth transition to self-sufficiency through supportive housing and employment, had been looking for accommodation for three female participants as demand for its main Work 2 Live program skyrocketed in the pandemic. The deal was inked to secure a three-bedroom unit in WHA’s recently completed Granite Ridge project after the WHA was unable to fill it from its rental waitlist, the culmination of years of ongoing discussions with the WHA. (It’s common for Zero Ceiling participants to be added to the WHA rental waitlist in case they decide to stay in the community after their year-long program ends.)
“The appropriate timing, tenure [and] unit availability had not been possible until Granite Ridge,” said WHA general manager Marla Zucht in an email. “The WHA and Zero Ceiling are both very excited about this housing partnership to assist a more vulnerable population in our community.”
A partnership between the WHA, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and BC Housing, the 45-unit Granite Ridge development in Cheakamus Crossing was made possible thanks to a total government investment of $25.1 million, comprising $4.5 million in grant funding, construction financing of approximately $10.2 million, and $10.4 million from the National Housing Co-Investment Fund. A condition of the funding from BC Housing was that a portion of the units had to gear rent to income, which the WHA achieved after revising its eligibility guidelines in 2019.
“It’s a really good way of ensuring that people can get into housing and that it’s based on their income and their ability to pay rather than a flat rate where everybody pays the same,” explained WHA board chair and Councillor Jen Ford. “So it is a very new concept for us.”
For Sean Easton, co-executive director of Zero Ceiling, the announcement comes as a welcome relief after months of trying to find housing.
“As the pandemic unfolded, we anticipated the pressures on the rental market softening a little bit, and then through the recognition of our organization, we thought we would be able to take advantage of some of this new funding and potentially scoop up a place, but it proved to be more difficult than that,” he said. “It was such a relief to get this last unit. It was amazing to connect with the WHA and be supported by them.”
Easton is hopeful the landmark agreement is a step towards better understanding and supporting the wide range of housing needs in Whistler, particularly for the resort’s more vulnerable residents.
“To be honest, the margins are narrower than other communities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” he said. “We think there’s opportunity to diversify the approach to housing so we can meet the needs of all community members and so people don’t get squeezed out.”
Although the WHA carries out annual surveying of local businesses to determine the ratio of employees living in the community—with a longstanding target of housing at least 75 per cent of workers locally—that data relies on business owners self-reporting, and doesn’t capture unemployed individuals, remote workers, or employees who may be under-housed.
“Is everyone living in their own bedroom? Is anyone sharing a house with 15 people? Obviously we weren’t asking those questions because that becomes much more difficult to paint,” said Ford. “So were we asking the right questions? Do we have a really fulsome idea of where our community lives, and is it adequate?”
Ford said the RMOW should gain a better picture of its housing landscape thanks to a comprehensive, provincially mandated housing needs assessment required for completion by April 2022, and every five years thereafter. The initiative, funded in Whistler through a $20,000 grant, requires municipalities to collect housing data, analyze trends, and ultimately produce a report with current and anticipated housing needs.
“We’re advocating to have housing providers like Zero Ceiling, who has been doing it for 24 years, and the Howe Sound Women’s Centre, which has also been doing this for decades, to be part of that process,” said Easton. “We have a huge chunk of money to do a needs assessment. Let’s not just spend it to find out what we already know. Let’s dig a little deeper.”
The Howe Sound Women’s Centre (HSWC) has been pushing for the establishment of a transition house in Whistler for women and gender-diverse individuals fleeing domestic violence for years. Currently, women in need of safe housing have to travel to Pemberton or Squamish, which can be a major barrier to individuals in such a precarious position to begin with.
“My information is anecdotal but we do see about 40 to 50 per cent of our calls coming from Whistler. Yet in the last couple of years, that’s not been the statistic that’s been [representative] of who’s accessing the transition house,” said HSWC executive director Ashley Oakes. “What we know is survivors in Whistler are more often declining entry to the transition house or safe home and we believe that’s because they need to leave the community to access them.”
Zucht noted the WHA has been in talks with the HSWC, and although the organization has yet to pin down the right kind of WHA accommodation to meet the needs of a safe house, “this collaboration is still a real possibility for future housing opportunities, and we will continue to pursue options that can help to address these identified needs.”
Despite the enthusiasm for a safe house from resort stakeholders like the WHA and RMOW, Oakes said, along with the high cost of real estate, the major barrier to establishing one in Whistler has been the community’s piecemeal approach to housing.
“Housing has been relatively siloed for all of our operators: for Zero Ceiling, for the Whistler Housing Authority, for the RMOW, for [Whistler Blackcomb] staff housing,” Oakes said. “We’ve all kind of operated in our own lane, and that may not necessarily be the best approach for Whistler, and that’s what I think we’re breaking down a bit now. It’s just working together to figure out how we really do that.”
Oakes added that she has seen the approach to housing improve over the past five years, which has only been accelerated by the pandemic.
“We’re getting to be a more collaborative community and I think the reason for that is we’re starting to realize as a community that there’s a need for affordable space and secure housing for those with less deep pockets,” she said.
“We’re stronger together and I think together we can affect change in each of our agencies.”
The WHA currently has a funding application into the province to assist with the financing of 100 units of new employee housing slated for Parcel A in Cheakamus Crossing, and expects to hear back next month, Zucht noted.