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Opinion: My underhoused Whistler life

'I’ve decided paying rent isn’t for me.'
Setting down roots in Whistler shouldn’t require one to live the ascetic life of a monk.

I’ve decided paying rent isn’t for me. Call it a personality quirk. Some people hate cilantro; I hate forking over exorbitant amounts of my hard-earned income to share a shoebox with an army of ski bums who haven’t yet learned the finer techniques of dishwashing. Sue me.

All jokes aside, for several months now, I’ve adopted a sort of transitional lifestyle that has seen me bounce from temporary place to temporary place, thanks to a series of live-in pet-sitting gigs and the boundless generosity of friends. This choice, I should add, is entirely my own, partly motivated by a desire to stow away some money for a rainy day, and partly motivated by a growing resentment towards a rental market that long ago crossed over into the realm of the absurd.

I tell you this, somewhat reluctantly, not because I’m seeking sympathy, but to demonstrate how tenuous the line can be between secure and insecure housing in this part of the world, as more residents look for ways to exit a rental market that never really served them in the first place.

For several years, I was lucky-ish to live in a $1,000-a-month bachelor suite in Alpine, thanks to landlords that were committed to offering affordable rent to long-term locals. Like so many other Whistlerites in my tax bracket, the decision to live there for as long as I did was more about the cheap rent than my personal well-being. A small, dark, and dingy ground-floor suite tucked under a deck that blocked virtually all natural light, my “kitchen” was a converted laundry room, equipped with a hot plate and a microwave, but no oven.

After several years there, and with my mental health spiralling, I realized it was time to choose my well-being over my wallet, even if it meant forking over more rent than I could realistically afford. That’s how I found myself sharing a bright, spacious, modern apartment in Downtown Squamish last year on a six-month lease—a lease, I should add, that I was given the impression the owners would be eager to extend after my half year was up. Not so. Reading the tea leaves of a softening market, they figured it was high time to cash out, and sold the unit to the highest bidder. My six-month experiment was up, and I was back to scrambling for a place to live.

Not wanting to leave Squamish, and unable to find something even remotely within my budget or accepted level of humanity in Whistler, I made the wise choice of subletting my ex’s room while she spent several months back in her native Australia. The fact I moved in a mere month after we broke up is all the proof you need of how desperate I was.

After that four-month stint, I returned to Whistler, where I had already lined up a multi-week cat-sitting gig. After that, my friend graciously allowed me to continue staying in their spare room, trading my well-honed pet-care skills (hire me, you cowards!) for rent.

Soon enough, I had a small nest egg of savings, more money than I had managed to put away at any point in my previous 11 years in Whistler. It was this simple fact—that I, a 37-year-old, university-trained, mid-career professional who has been covering this town for more than a decade, could only seem to amass any savings by sleeping in spare rooms and on friends’ couches—that motivated me to try to extend this unconventional living arrangement for as long as possible. (Some of this—OK, a lot of this—you can chalk up to the journalism industry’s piss-poor pay: the average salary for a Canadian journalist today hovers around $47,000. The estimated living wage for Whistler in 2023 amounts to roughly $55,000 a year.)

And before you accuse me of squandering my precious dollars on avocado toast and fancy lattes (what up, Camp Coffee!), a favourite accusation lobbed at my fellow broke-ass Millennials, I will say this: setting down roots in Whistler shouldn’t require one to live the ascetic life of a monk, nor should it necessitate killing yourself working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

So, leave, I hear the trolls clamouring. Well, at least anecdotally speaking, many Whistlerites are. After all, not everyone who lands in the resort, far from their families and support networks, has the same connections I’ve been lucky enough to forge in my decade-plus here that have afforded me a spare couch or bed to sleep on. And if they aren’t skipping town, then many are, like me, foregoing the traditional rental market by choosing to live in vans or tents, a growing trend you can find in communities across North America.

The reactionists would like to point the finger at these underhoused masses for their own precarious housing situation. But the more nuanced thinkers out there recognize: the system is utterly broken.