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Breeding Bolsheviks

There’s a class struggle going on in Whistler, although many of the have-nots are too tranquillized by the opiate of the masses – I’m talking about skiing and snowboarding not organized religion – to realize it.

The Whistler employee experience circa 2002 is to be surrounded by the wealthy and privileged, watching the old homes we live in bulldozed to make way for bigger homes, and saying goodbye to the people who have decided that they can no longer afford to live here.

Last week the Four Seasons hotel in Whistler, which hasn’t even been built yet, sold out 242 luxury condominiums worth $152 million in about five hours. According to an eyewitness it was a feeding frenzy, with some people buying two or three units and others storming away angry because they didn’t even get one.

The hysteria was hardly surprising. The week before a KPMG study revealed that Whistler contributes about $1.035 billion in tourism revenues to the province on an annual basis.

Everyone wants a piece of Whistler, this four-season wonderland. It’s just not everyone that can afford it.

The municipality has shelves full of vision documents, plans and strategies that basically say that the future success of Whistler depends on our ability to build and maintain a healthy and liveable community in and around the resort. It ensures the availability of skilled, long-term workers and gives the town colour and culture.

Unlike Colorado resorts like Vail and Aspen, where about 75 per cent of resort staff live in neighbouring towns, Whistler manages to house close to 80 per cent of its 14,000 member workforce during the peak season. It sounds impressive, but for a lot of resort staff living conditions are far from ideal as people are forced into double, triple, even quadruple occupancy. The reality is we’re only barely squeaking by.

By the time we hit buildout, the bed unit cap of 52,500, the Whistler Housing Authority estimates that the peak season workforce will need to be about 16,000 strong.

Putting that 2,000 employee increase into perspective, that’s about the equivalent of 700 more three-bedroom apartments or houses without doubling people up.

The WHA has plans to provide more rental and retail housing in partnership with local businesses, but it’s an uphill battle. Not only do they have a growing workforce to house, they also have to compensate for all the rental houses that are being lost around town. Some are being destroyed. Some are being priced out of the average resort employee’s price range.

So here’s the situation: the price of living is increasing for resort employees, while profits are increasing for local businesses. And yet the wages have stayed more or less the same.

In Canada, people who live in the far northern regions are paid more and are eligible for a number of tax breaks and perks. If the government and businesses didn’t offer these incentives, nobody would live there.

People who live in resort towns, although we help to contribute billions of dollars to the economy, don’t get any incentives at all.

A pragmatist will tell you that staff can be bussed to Whistler from the so-called bedroom communities of Squamish and Pemberton. But there’s a difference between property owners who are happy to make the commute and the underpaid resort staff who are forced to get on a bus at the crack of dawn every morning. They might hang in there for a season or two, but after a while they’ll get tired of living on the fringe of something, of being unappreciated, and move on.

A large part of the workforce will always be transient, but everybody knows that what makes the resort work is the people who stay. They know their jobs better, they know the resort, and they have more invested in the town. They actually care if guests are getting the best service and are having a good time. They want to live here, but with housing prices and property taxes going through the roof, they have no choice but to rely on the housing that the WHA can provide.

I know there are limits to what the municipality and businesses can do. You can’t stop people from selling their homes to developers or to out-of-towners. When the market says your property is worth a million dollars, and your property taxes are going up for the 10th year in a row, do you rent it out to friendly ski bums or do you take the money and run?

Money is the motive in Whistler. Money is the mantra. Money is also our 800 pound gorilla. He was cute and loveable at first but now he’s on a rampage.

Despite the best intentions of the municipality to establish an affordable community where people can live well and can raise a family, they don’t have a tranquillizer dart big enough to stop the gorilla in its tracks.

If we raised the minimum wage, could we prevent businesses and landlords from raising their prices? Can we protect older homes from being replaced by 5,000 square foot "cabins"? Can we build enough staff housing that we don’t have to worry about any of this crap?

These are just a few of questions that are going to have to be answered if we want to get this monkey off of our backs.

— Andrew Mitchell