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Housing demands for 2010 heat up

Accommodation one of the main topics at town hall meeting

Sixty thousand dollars to rent a home for one month over the Olympic period could be too much for at least one Whistler homeowner to turn down.

“I’ve been approached for 28 days,” said the homeowner, who asked not to be named.

“The money is fairly significant.”

The deal, which has not yet been signed, would mean that the home, including the one bedroom suite, would need to be vacated for the Olympic time period.

This homeowner has already approached his tenants with a proposal — vacate for a month and come back to six months free rent.

The couple, one who works in construction and the other who works in the hospitality industry, wasted no time agreeing he said, seeing the golden opportunity for a month long vacation while saving roughly $5,000 in rent upon their return.

But that means they won’t be working in Whistler during the Games. And that could be a problem for the resort.

The issue, which has been worrying resort leaders, was raised again at the Olympic town hall meeting on Saturday.

In response to questions about the accommodation, Mayor Ken Melamed issued a plea to homeowners to understand the problem and not exacerbate it.

“This is less about them and more about us and Canada,” he told the audience at Millennium Place.

“Show the world that Canadians are the gracious hosts that we are.”

In an interview later this week he admitted that $60,000 is a lot of money and hard to say no to.

“I understand the appeal,” he said. “It’s hard not to find that attractive.”

On the one hand this homeowner, like many others who have been approached, is simply taking advantage of market conditions and meeting a need that has presented itself with the Olympics. On the other hand, less homes for locals could spell disaster for a resort that needs to function at well beyond its normal busy capacity come February 2010.

The mayor cautioned that homeowners taking the short-term gain could have a negative impact on the resort in the long-term.

Olympic visitors, and more importantly, Olympic media, will be shining a spotlight on Whistler during the Games and if the story is that it’s too expensive, with no suitable accommodation and not enough workers, that could have repercussions down the road and impact business for the next 15 to 20 years.

The resort in many ways is still recovering from what the mayor called the “millennium effect” when it seemed no price was too high for Whistler guests.

“We have been recovering from a period of excessive pricing from the turn of the century,” he said, adding that it has taken a lot of work on the part of Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb to get across that the resort is good value for the money.

The municipality has been considering its options, both incentives and ways to enforce the laws, to prevent homeowners from seizing on these Olympic opportunities.

Technically, homes in residentially zoned areas cannot rent to tourists for less than 28 days.

“(The laws) get grey after 28 days,” said Melamed.

Rather than take the enforcement route, the municipality would rather look at incentives: could there be perks or benefits for those landlords who can show their lease extends past 2010 for their tenants?

“We don’t even know what we can offer,” he said. “We need to start working on some ideas.”

And though the Games are still two years out, there are organizations such as national ski teams, government organizations and international corporations, who are looking to ink deals now.

There are already signs that renters are getting nervous.

Whistler Housing Authority housing administrator Jessica Averiss said the list for rental housing managed by the WHA has more than doubled in the last year and now sits at almost 150 applicants. That’s the list for people waiting to get into a long-term, fixed price rental unit.

“It’s in anticipation of losing their accommodation or just not having certainty in their existing accommodation… or in anticipation of their rents being increased,” said Averiss.

Both the municipality and the WHA are asking tenants to be their own advocates.

“We’re recommending that wherever possible have that conversation with your landlord to find out what their plans are,” said Averiss.

The homeowner considering the $60,000 has been upfront with his tenants and found a solution that works for both parties.

“I wouldn’t be evicting them,” said the homeowner. “If I decide to rent I’m going to sign a contract with my tenant.”

The mayor reminded local businesses who could potentially lose staff that the onus to some extent is on them to ensure they have staff with accommodation during 2010. (see related story on page 20.)

“The message to local businesses is that this is their responsibility,” said Melamed.

It is not clear how widespread the problem could be but there are more and more stories of homeowners in discussions to rent their homes.

There are in excess of 12,000 tourist accommodation zoned beds in the resort.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Games (VANOC) needs less than half of that to meet its needs, around 5,000 beds.

Between 80 to 85 per cent of those beds have already been secured with contracts.

But there are still several groups that need to be housed, not the least of which is the unaccredited media who will be writing stories about the resort itself, and security.

VANOC is aware of the challenges in Whistler.

“This is not unique to Whistler,” said CEO John Furlong at Saturday’s meeting.

“We’ll get past this one. We’ll figure it out. We have to.”