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First Person: Tim Wake

The houseworker The general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority says there isn’t any one answer or any simple solutions to Whistler’s housing situation.

The houseworker

The general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority says there isn’t any one answer or any simple solutions to Whistler’s housing situation. Tim Wake, the energetic and passionate force driving the WHA, has a unique position in Whistler as the steward of our inventory of employee-restricted housing.

He has witnessed the housing evolution through his involvement at the WHA for the past five years. At the same time, his position gives him a unique perspective to look into Whistler’s future and predict how things may unfold for this community in years to come.

Whistler is now at a crossroads. The numbers speak for themselves. Whistler’s total peak season workforce is 14,000 and rising. The resident workforce is 10,600. There are 3,800 people living in restricted housing.

Meanwhile, the number of employees living in private sector (or market) housing is getting smaller every year. Resident owners are cashing out and moving elsewhere and fewer homes are being built as housing for our workforce.

Wake says one thing is for certain, Whistler by comparison to other resorts, is doing just fine. The only worry is whether things will stay that way or not. Tim Wake talked to Pique Newsmagazine about Whistler’s future housing goals and needs to ensure that vibrancy remains in this community.

Pique: Housing became a very contentious issue during the recent municipal elections. Why?

Wake: The first thing to recognize is that things are really very good today but we cannot stop the clock. We certainly have some challenges but we are housing 75 per cent of our workforce in Whistler. And most of those people are adequately housed. Certainly there’s a proportion of that 75 per cent who are inadequately housed. Part of the struggle and the anxiety that we’re seeing around housing is about that portion of the workforce in the community that are not adequately housed and see very little hope of being so. But another part of the anxiety is that what has worked in the past is no longer working. And this exhibits itself in the suite that was affordable once but is no longer affordable. The market suite that was once $400 per person is now $700 or $800 per person. That’s one example.

Pique: The percentage of the workforce housed in the community has also dipped in recent years.

Wake: We were at 80 per cent in 1997. We did a survey then and we found, actually a little bit to our surprise, that we were at 80 per cent because that’s a better number than virtually any resort community that we know of.

We’ve slipped to 75 per cent in 2002 because of the erosion that is occurring in market housing. So now one of four people lives outside of Whistler, when it used to be one out of five.

Pique: We talk about losing the vibrancy of the community as we lose the resident workforce. What is a vibrant community?

Wake: The simple answer is that we don’t have good measures of what is a vibrant community. An example of a measure might be volunteer hours worked per capita, or number of community organizations per capita or people involved in a community organization per capita. What these indicators would point to is a feeling that our visitors get and that we get that is very palpable – that feeling that this place feels alive or this place feels dead; this place feels like it’s coming alive or this place feels like it’s dying. And those are the kinds of comments that we get from visitors in comparing our resort to other resorts. And right now, today in 2003, the message we’re getting is that this place is very alive and very vibrant and most other resort communities would like to have this kind of feel.

Pique: There is a rumour that 66 per cent is now the target for resident housing. Is that true? And if so, will we lose this vibrancy with that target?

Wake: There has been mention of a target of 66 per cent back in the early days of the housing society. Somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent is the target of some of the Colorado communities. Those same communities, notably Vail, have slipped below 50 per cent. There isn’t much in the way of scientific information as to what this number needs to be to maintain the vibrancy that we talked about. But it’s pretty clear that if you slip below 50 per cent you start to lose it and I think some would suggest that 60 per cent is getting pretty minimal. But I think it’s also safe to conclude that more than 70 per cent might not be sustainable. So maybe at the end of the day that 66 per cent figure isn’t a bad figure. It’s a guessing game. I don’t think we know. And one point that has been raised and is a good question is, is it a percentage or it is a critical mass? Is 10,000 people enough to make up the resident workforce?

Personally I would be very concerned if we slipped below 65 per cent. That’s my personal line in the sand but I certainly supported trying to stick with 80 if we could.

The reality is these were somewhat arbitrary targets. They’re not based on a lot of science but they’re very important numbers.

There’s an interesting corollary to this and that is in the last four years, while our workforce has been growing each year from about 12,000 in 1997 to 14,000 today, the percentage of the resident workforce has been slipping from 80 per cent down to 75 per cent. This has meant that the actual number of resident employees has stayed fairly constant at between 10,000 and 11,000.

Pique: If we reach buildout and have a resident workforce of 66 per cent, how many people will make up the resident workforce?

Wake: If you project the work force out to where it would be at our current buildout based on the relationship that we have seen between developed bed units and employees, which is a relationship that has been tracking fairly well, what it would predict is that we will top out at about 16,500 employees. If you take 66 per cent of 16,500, it’s just under 11,000.

Pique: So this could be the critical mass you’re talking about?

Wake: It is a very simplified approach but perhaps we’re there. If that is the case, then we don’t need to expand our housing, we merely need to preserve what we have.

Pique: So if we could stem the tide of these market beds disappearing in Whistler homes, we’d have enough housing for our residents by buildout?

Wake: We can’t. But yes, if we could stem the tide then we wouldn’t have to build anymore. If you look at the situation today, we’ve got almost 7,000 employees living in market housing. How many employees 35 years from now are going to be living in market housing? The current trend would suggest that it’s going to be a much smaller number. It’s going to be nowhere near 7,000 so we need to create some housing for those folks or we need to find a way to preserve those market beds for employees. Maybe there’s some other way than restricting them.

Pique: Who are those folks we need to create housing for?

Wake: Everybody. We’re not talking about hourly paid employees only here. We’re talking about everybody. We’re talking about the small business owner, we’re talking about the small business manager, we’re talking about the elite athlete who has a sponsorship deal here, we’re talking about our professionals, nurses, teachers, doctors, lawyers, we’re talking about property managers, ski instructors. It’s literally everybody. Think of anyone arriving in town now to purchase a house and live here. It doesn’t matter how much they’re earning. The chances are, based on their employment here, they’re not going to be able to justify paying $1 million for a house or $600,000 for a condo.

What we think is most critical right now, what we think we’re behind on, is the short-term rental housing.

Pique: Let’s talk about potential sites for this housing. Is the answer in the land bank, specifically the Callaghan?

Wake: There are plenty of opportunities on both public and private land that could conceivably be used for some form of restricted housing. They’ve all got problems. I think the Callaghan and the Lower Cheakamus are great sites. They’re likely going to be part of the solution but they’re certainly not all the solution. And I think we need to look hard at some other opportunities, perhaps crown land opportunities that are closer in. Because part of what we want to preserve here is that critical mass that’s centred in the core of town, in the core of our community.

And it goes without saying that all this needs to be balanced off against our sustainability plan. That is going to be the big lens through which we view this entire process.

Pique: There are some that think we shouldn’t be subsidizing housing. Why should we have it here


Wake: First of all I think we should be careful with the word "subsidized." We call it restricted housing and basically we’re using some tools to bring it in at a lower price. And you could suggest that the community is making a form of a subsidy to create it but it’s a one-time effort to create it and then it looks after itself. The rent covers the operation and the maintenance and the taxes on that housing so once it’s operating there is no further subsidy. All this housing generates tax revenues. Cheap land or unzoned land that gets zoned for employee housing is the subsidy.

We need it here because the reality is that the market is going to be less and less capable of delivering solutions that will work for employees, and we can see that happening. With no restricted housing, our resident workforce today might be 7,000 and on the decline

Pique: Do you think there’s a stigma in town attached to restricted housing?

Wake: I would suggest that there has been but it’s a stigma that is evaporating. It’s a stigma that’s slowly vanishing and it’s vanishing because almost everybody who works in Whistler now has friends who live in restricted housing. And most of the people who live in restricted housing love it and it takes a huge burden off of them, the burden of what am I going to do? It may not be everything they wanted in housing but it’s very secure, it’s their own, and they have control over it and they can get on with their lives and forget that huge hurdle of stress. There was a time when I saw the perception of it as a problem but I don’t see it as a problem anymore. And the more we do it, the more comfortable everybody gets with it.

Pique: In a perfect world what would you see in the next couple of years?

Wake: Well we have a new council. They are clearly very committed to addressing this issue. We’ve had a very clear message from the community during the election that this was a big issue. We’ve got some very workable tools in the land bank, some potential sites within the community, we’ve got developers who are willing and eager to produce this housing. So we have some excellent tools. In a perfect world, we would move steadily forward with these tools and continue to ensure a supply of accessible housing, both market and restricted, for our workforce.

In saying this, we have to remember that what we have today is really good and it’s not that we have to go and do something incredibly different. We need to protect the good thing we have going here and it’s not going to be one big solution, it’s going to be a series of sensible solutions.