As someone who has reported on all things Whistler for more than a decade now, I have written my fair share of stories about the resort’s affordable housing crisis that has only seemed to get worse with each passing year.
If you read last week’s illuminating cover feature by Róisín Cullen, (“Wake-up Call, Pique, Jan. 19), you got to see just how dire the situation has become for many young newcomers to town, who often sacrifice a sizable chunk of their income, well-being and dignity just for a shot at living the Whistler dream.
It’s hard to hear these harrowing stories winter after winter and not feel like the system we rely upon to provide this inalienable human right is somehow broken. How, in one of the wealthiest communities in one of the most progressive, modern nations in the world, are we still unable to safely house so many of our own?
Quite often the common refrain you hear after questions like these is that housing is a complex, multi-faceted issue that can’t be solved with a silver bullet, which is not inaccurate, of course, but ignores a hard truth at the core of Western society’s longstanding housing shortage that rarely gets talked about.
In a recent piece in The Atlantic exploring American homelessness, staff writer Jerusalem Demsas describes an inherent contradiction at the root of the issue that has effectively clogged the housing continuum for Americans in cities across the U.S.
“Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups that have historically been shunted to the peripheries of the housing market,” he writes. “But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.”
We’ve seen this dynamic play out again and again across Canada, too. Each provincial or national election cycle, the candidates come out making grand promises to build more housing, but by the time a project filters its way down to the local level, far too often it’s met with opposition from neighbours and community interest groups which have a number of tools at their disposal to keep new development out of their backyards.
As historian Jacob Anbinder explains, in the ’70s and ‘80s, “the implementation of height limits, density restrictions, design review boards, mandatory community input, and other veto points in the development process” made it much tougher to get housing built.
For an example of a city that has taken the opposite approach, let’s look to Houston, largely free of the kinds of regulations and requirements of public input that slow down development elsewhere, the city has been on a building spree of late, where nearly 40 per cent of homes on the market in the fourth quarter of 2021 were new builds, the highest rate in the nation. Houston has also placed a big emphasis on permanent supportive housing, which has contributed to lowering its homelessness rate by a whopping 62 per cent since 2011.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has long prided itself on its public engagement, and the “enhanced rezoning process” it voluntarily implemented for the incoming development at Northlands Boulevard—the largest remaining piece of undeveloped land in the village—adding an extra layer of community engagement than it would normally be required to meet, is a prime example. And yet, like clockwork, nearly every major housing proposal that has made its way to council in recent years has been met with opposition from neighbours. I’m not saying some of that opposition isn’t legitimate, by any means, but there’s a sad irony about a community that continually calls for more housing only to change their tune as soon as a development is set to land in their neighbourhood.
“Can’t build anything until every last NIMBY has lost their voice from shouting— and when we do, it won’t make a difference, because we waited too long and reduced the development to its bare bones,” Pique editor Braden Dupuis put it so succinctly in a recent column.
Even by the over-regulated standard of Canadian municipalities, Whistler is a unique animal. We have strict design and energy efficiency guidelines, a notoriously slow permitting process at municipal hall, and a complicated zoning framework with varying housing types and classes.
I’m not even sure how you untangle this convoluted web of regulations without tearing the whole system down. But I do know that if we want to build more affordable housing, maybe it’s time we take a page from Houston’s book, and get out of our own way.