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Maxed Out: The Fourth Dimension—Part II

'Whistler has been bleeding market rentals, largely suites, at a pace far exceeding the construction of resident-restricted employee housing...'
Whistler Village under construction in the summer of 1979.

“In the long run, we are all dead.”

-John Maynard Keynes

The important thing, the thing Keynes went on to build his version of economics on, is what we do until our long run comes to an end. Born out of the economic and social devastation of the Great Depression—a crash he laid at the feet of unbridled, free-market capitalism—Keynes’ macroeconomic model hung its hat on a form of liberal capitalism that envisioned a regulated market economy with coordination between governments and central banks manipulating fiscal and monetary policy to smooth out the wild swings of free markets chasing a balance between supply and demand.

Have I put you to sleep yet?

While Keynesian thought held sway in most western democracies after the Great Depression and through the post Second World War boom, a competing school of thought, the Chicago School, built momentum beginning in the mid 1950s. Reduced to a far too simplistic explanation, the Chicago School believed markets, left to their “rational” expectations, could do no wrong. Profit good; regulation bad. Reganomics. Thatcherism. Mulroony.

So what in the world does any of that have to do with Whistler’s current housing issues?

There was a moment of realization, in 1974, that Whistler wouldn’t be well-served by allowing land owners to develop whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. The development freeze that was mandated by the province provided a breather during which those charged with planning for Whistler’s development would have a chance to think about how and how fast the town evolved.

As Jim Moodie—part of the management team along with Doug Sutcliffe and Neil Griggs who put together the first development plan for the town centre—reminded me last week, those key ingredients still seen in the Village, things like the grocery store, hardware store, book store and others, were all identified and planned as integral to a well-rounded, well-functioning town.

This was no cowboy development, where buildings were going to be built with no plan for how they were going to be used. “It was considered a really communist, total-control sort of concept,” Moodie quipped.

But a combination of brutal interest rates, a government bailout that included development rights to what would become Village North, the development of Blackcomb, snowboarding breathing life into what was considered a sunset industry, and a robust rebound accelerated development of Whistler. In record time. Far faster than the early planners expected, the town grew from an interesting regional ski hill to a nascent world class resort.

That growth set the stage for what’s happening now.

From then on, what had been a tough housing market slowly developed into an impossible housing market. Impossible in the sense that, like so much of the rest of the world’s enchanting places to live, Whistler’s growing pool of residents—people lured here by a luxurious lifestyle accompanied by service-sector wages—can no longer afford to live here absent non-market housing alternatives or an unlikely lottery win.

Early skiers, largely from the Lower Mainland, built fairly simple homes here. Many had suites local workerbees lived in. This provided some security for the homeowners who were absent mid-week, as well as financial help paying a second-home mortgage.

It was entirely foreseeable—at least to anyone who had a grasp of the fourth dimension: time—there would come a time many of the weekend warriors would be lured to Whistler as a wonderful place to retire. Many did. Few continued to need or desire full-time residents in those suites. They disappeared as rec rooms, media rooms and suites for grown children of the owners.

Also foreseeable that skiers who didn’t retire to Whistler would sell their weekend retreats. Few were purchased by local residents. Many were purchased by investors. Most were bulldozed. Virtually none were rebuilt with suites.

Whistler has been bleeding market rentals, largely suites, at a pace far exceeding the construction of resident-restricted employee housing, which is to say rental and ownership properties managed by the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA). Foreseeable? Probably.

Adding to that loss has been the Olympic™ legacy. In the buildup to the Olympics™, two fronts on the affordable housing war developed simultaneously—Rainbow and the Athletes’ Village. Rainbow was a plan brokered between developers and the Resort Municipality of Whistler to convert the tract previously housing a few commercial offices and the local paintball operation into a mix of restricted, market housing and commercial development. It began to come online around the time of the 2010 Games.

At the same time, the Athletes’ Village was transformed into Cheakamus Crossing and, in a stroke of genius and good planning, was also transformed into resident-restricted, employee housing. If you don’t think that was genius, look up what happened to the Athletes’ Village in Vancouver. It could have been so much worse.

The confluence of the two developments threw a wrench into the plans of quite a few landlords in town who woke up in the post-Olympic™ hangover to find their tenants were either gone or refusing to pay the outrageous rents they’d been paying. I vividly remember one of them accosting the then-head of WHA, one day when he and I were skiing, and accusing him of ruining his comfortable income stream using language no editor of Pique would ever let me repeat in print.

What followed was a few years when the annual survey of employers in town reported to WHA they weren’t having any issues finding employees who already had housing. For a brief period, it was harder for newbies in town to find jobs rather than housing!

The upshot of that was a number of years where virtually no new housing was added to the employee housing stock, a lull, in retrospect, that looks increasingly like a missed opportunity.

Having wrestled 300 acres (121 hectares) in Cheakamus from the province, earmarked largely for resident housing, it seemed the town had ample employee housing and the luxury of time to plan and develop that legacy slowly. Oops.

When it became clear in the latter part of the last decade that was an illusion, when the market rental housing stock continued to bleed away and no new housing was being built, the machine was kickstarted again, and for half a decade when we enjoyed relatively low interest rates and ample supplies of building material and labour, new building took place in Cheakamus.

Then, as in the late 1970s, early 1980s, the unthinkable happened. An era of low, almost no, interest rates came to an end.

As has this instalment. What I hoped would be two parts is going to take three. My apologies. Next week, The Fourth Dimension—Part III. 

Read Part 1 here.