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The Rainbow Clause

Evidently the new definition of affordable housing in Whistler is that somebody out there can afford it.

Evidently the new definition of affordable housing in Whistler is that somebody out there can afford it.

Getting the Rainbow Development to its current state has been a long, confusing and sometimes painful process, setting council back on its heels on more than one occasion while the developers themselves have bought and sold stakes in the project. Yet it’s cleared every reading, every hurdle, every last minute plea for changes to its contract with the municipality, simply because the need for new employee housing was always too great for anyone to say “Whoah, what the hell are we doing?”

And now it’s too late. There was an opportunity to grind the process to a halt at an emergency council session two weeks ago, when council decided to modify the secondary buyer clause ( only 30 of the 70 single family homes can now go to secondary qualified buyers) but it passed 5-2. Ralph Forsyth and Nancy Wilhelm-Morden were the sole voices of reason voting against.

I’d argue that the secondary buyer clause was the crux of the whole project all along — there are simply not enough people on the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) list that can afford the type of homes that are going to be built at Rainbow (almost half the units, all 70 single-family homes, will sell for $525,000 or more) so the developers needed the ability to sell to local residents who aren’t currently on the housing list.

As some councillors have pointed out, the project doesn’t do much to help out most of the more than 740 residents currently on the WHA list as only one out of 10 are qualified for the kind of mortgage needed to buy a single-family home at Rainbow — which is no guarantee they’re going to buy. That leaves the developers with one option — to offer the houses to other residents who probably already live in market housing.

There are hundreds if not thousands of residents that have been in Whistler 20 years or more that now own homes that are worth $1 million to $2 million, and as a result they would never, ever qualify for a spot on the WHA list. Rainbow gives them an option to sell their homes at market prices (ka-ching!) buy a single-family home for $625,000, and pocket the rest of that money.

Here’s what’s wrong with that idea:

First, it goes against the entire concept of the WHA, which was created to keep employees in the resort by giving them an opportunity to buy homes. There are a lot of older residents close to retirement, and allowing them to sell market homes and buy WHA homes probably means many residents will be retiring sooner or working less.

For the record I have no problem with people cashing in and making a profit on their homes, but I have to object, and strenuously, when a residential housing program becomes the vehicle that allows them to do that.

Secondly, it’s supposed to be affordable housing, which to me means that the price of home ownership should be in reach of the average family income. Various rules also keep home prices affordable, ensuring that the next person on the list could benefit just as much. More than half the houses at Rainbow do not meet that definition for affordability.

I understand that some people do earn a lot of money running businesses and working here, and that million-dollar market homes are still out of their reach. But is this group of people really a priority when you consider that they only make up a small percentage of the housing list?

Lastly, I also have to point out that Rainbow is adding bed units. The bed unit cap was extended to accommodate the project on the basis that it was needed, desperately, to keep employees in Whistler. The project would not have gone ahead without these added bed units, or without allowing the construction and sale of new single family market homes to help keep costs down for the employee housing units.

When people flip their market homes and move into Rainbow, we’re not really creating any new bed units for employees that need them — we’re just opening up a bunch of new bed units for second homeowners, which means bigger crowds at the beaches, longer lift lines in the winter, more cars in our public lots, and more demand for public services.

I can understand the pressure that council was under — after all, most of them ran on the promise of creating new employee housing, and this project has huge public support. I also don’t know if anything could have been changed about the project at this late date — e.g. fewer single-family homes, more duplexes and some affordable townhomes. But it would have been the right thing to do.

On another tract, I think I know a way to house dozens, if not hundreds more families in WHA homes. Through the years I’ve personally heard of at least three WHA homeowners that don’t actually live in their places, renting them out entirely or saving a bedroom so they can come up on weekends and ski. This violates the housing covenant in most cases, turning WHA homes into little more than investment properties. It’s time to do some investigating, knocking on doors and digging through paperwork, to find out who is gaming the system.

Besides the developers…