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Housing survey full of sobering facts

The Whistler Housing Authority’s 2002 survey of housing needs, released a couple of weeks ago, seems to contain good news, at first glance.

The Whistler Housing Authority’s 2002 survey of housing needs, released a couple of weeks ago, seems to contain good news, at first glance.

"The recent trends of slower growth in the workforce, fewer unfilled positions, and more employees living outside of municipal boundaries suggest that Whistler may have an opportunity to begin to ‘catch up’ in effectively addressing the lack of affordable housing in the area for employees," the report concludes optimistically.

But while some trends are promising the survey also shows that there is still a significant problem. For example, 48 per cent of Whistler employees spent more than 30 per cent of their income on rent last winter. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines affordable housing as costing 30 per cent, or less, of an individual’s monthly income.

And while growth in the winter workforce seems to have levelled off at about 2.5 per cent annually, it’s still growth. Businesses continue to require more employees each winter. This even held true last winter when, after the events of Sept. 11, most people were anticipating declines in business.

The survey found that the number of employees required throughout the resort this winter is expected to increase again. As well, nearly one in five large employers and one in 10 smaller employers were not able to achieve full staffing levels last winter. Again, the trend is positive – the number of unfilled positions was less than it was the previous winter – but the reality was an estimated 272 positions could not be filled. That means at some businesses customers weren’t getting the service they should receive, and that hurts the whole town.

The proportion of employees living outside Whistler continues to increase. One of the WHA’s primary goals, stated in its 2000 report, is to house 80 per cent of Whistler’s workforce within municipal boundaries, with one in three of those people living in resident-restricted homes. That percentage has dropped in each of the last three winters, and was at 75 per cent last winter.

The survey lends facts and figures to a problem that nearly everyone has anecdotal evidence of. The question is how to address the problem.

The current thinking at municipal hall seems to be Whistler can’t build its way out of the problem. If more and more resident-restricted and seasonal-employee housing is created, more and more businesses will locate here, fuelling the demand for more employees and more housing. In the meantime, the valley will have exceeded its capacity for development. While there is some support at municipal hall for one more seasonal-employee apartment building, there is no money.

What there is now, more than ever, is gentrification eroding the supply of suites and older homes, which have traditionally housed the bulk of Whistler employees. And if you combine gentrification with the survey’s finding that employee numbers are still increasing (and will jump significantly when the Four Seasons hotel opens next winter), then building more restricted housing would seem to be at least part of the solution.

Another factor available now, that hasn’t always been present, is interest from the local business community in addressing the housing problem. That interest was sparked, belatedly, by council turning down development proposals from John Zen and Tim Regan 18 months ago that included significant employee housing. On the positive side, a survey of members of the chamber of commerce last winter indicated businesses had significant interest in leasing housing for their employees if it became available.

But whether the solution is building more restricted housing or protecting existing housing stocks from gentrification, or a combination of the two, a plan to achieve that end is required. As Councillor Ken Melamed said following the presentation of the WHA survey, a new policy is needed.

Without it employees, businesses and the resort suffer. But even more damaging in the long term is the growing sense among many that Whistler is no longer a place of opportunity.