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Council exploring employee housing proposal for Nordic Estates

Private developer targeting middle-income earners for 74-unit project
HOUSING HELP A detailed view of the project site proposed for a staff housing developent in Nordic Estates that, if approved, will be rented out by local businesses. Image courtesy of the RMOW

Whistler's mayor and council will consider a proposal to develop an employee housing project in Nordic Estates for businesses looking to house their management-level staff.

At Tuesday's regular meeting of council, officials voted to further review a rezoning application from a private developer for the purpose of building employee rental housing on Garibaldi Way.

The proposal is for 74 units spread across three buildings that would be available to local businesses to rent to their permanent staff. The developer, Robert Velenosi, is reportedly targeting management-level employees and their families to fill the units after consulting with several large employers in town.

Following meetings with the developer, municipal staff has recommended the initial monthly rate be set at $3 per square foot, with an opportunity for employers to further subsidize their employees' rental costs.

That $3 mark falls below the local median advertised rate of $4.19/sq. ft. for a 750-sq.-ft. two-bedroom home, as tracked by the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA)*. In a follow-up email, WHA manager Marla Zucht cautioned against using the advertised rental rate, which is based on local print and digital housing ads, as the sole benchmark for market rental rates given so many local units are not officially advertised.

Some at the council table expressed concern over the project's affordability.

"If we're aiming to get affordable housing, it really should be for those struggling to find market rentals," said Coun. Sue Maxwell.

At the current recommended rate, the 23 one-bedroom units proposed for the development would cost $1,971 a month to rent, compared to $1,036 in Squamish and $1,223 in Vancouver. The 33 one-bedroom units with a den would come to $2,325 a month in rent, while the 18 two-bedroom units proposed would cost $2,487, compared to $1,161 in Squamish, and $1,552 in Vancouver, according to Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation latest figures.

With four WHA employee housing projects underway that are expected to double the resort's resident-restricted rental inventory by 2020, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden argued there is now opportunity to consider the housing needs of middle-income earners.

"We've already got everything from the dormitory-style housing that Whistler Blackcomb has provided, to what we've got at Cloudburst (in Cheakamus Crossing), to stuff in between," she said. "Now this is a bit of a different pool of tenants, all of whom are looking for a place to live."

Plus, with the developer primed to manage the project, the financial risk wouldn't fall on the municipality, contended Coun. John Grills.

Rent hikes would be limited to the maximum allowable annual increase determined by the BC Residential Tenancy Office, which is set at four per cent for 2018. Given that average wages locally haven't kept pace with that rate, Maxwell questioned why municipal staff wouldn't peg yearly rent increases to a measure that more accurately reflected Whistler's economic reality, such as the Consumer Price Index.

In response, director of planning Mike Kirkegaard said that option was considered, but ultimately staff went with the recommendation of WHA general manager Marla Zucht to tie rent increases to the tenancy office's guidelines.

The other major concern raised at Tuesday's meeting was the potential impact the development could have on the Nordic Estates neighbourhood, which is primarily made of up of detached single-family dwellings. The proposed site, a 0.98-hectare parcel of vacant land, is currently zoned RSE1 (Single Family Residential). The property now has six bed units allocated to it, and, if greenlit, that allotment would increase to 222.

"That's quite the jump," said Coun. Cathy Jewett of the proposed bed-unit increase. Projects must demonstrate an "extraordinary benefit" to the community in order for the bed-unit cap to be lifted, a determination that local residents will have input on over the course of the development's permitting process, explained municipal planning analyst Roman Licko.

"I would stress this is a preliminary proposal and nothing we're reviewing today is cast in stone. So, what is the appropriate level of density? That's going to come through the permit approval process," he said, urging residents to make their voices heard at future public hearings or by corresponding with the municipality.

A traffic impact analysis is also required as part of the project's approval process. The developer is proposing to add 132 parking stalls, 111 of which would be underground.

*An earlier version of this article indicated the $4.19/sq. ft. rate as the average market rental rate in Whistler, not the median advertised rental rate. This was based on information provided by RMOW staff.

Also, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated CMHC's average market rental rates for a one-bedroom in Downtown Vancouver and Squamish. Pique apologizes for the error.