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Search for short-term housing intensifies

Olympic sponsors, local businesses look for units to house workers before, during and after Games

By Alison Taylor

As Olympic sponsors and providers search for more housing in Whistler leading up to the 2010 Games, concerns are growing about an increasing housing shortage for local employees.

“It’s a huge, huge issue for me,” Scott Pass, manager of Whistler Transit told the mayor Tuesday night.

“We need to come up with some temporary solutions to get us over (the Olympics).”

He later explained his worries are focused on the shortage of housing over the next two winters in the busy lead up to the Games.

Local business owner Chris Quinlan echoed these sentiments at Tuesday’s Dialogue Café with Mayor Ken Melamed.

“I’m already contracting employees for 2010,” said Quinlan who runs Behind the Grind coffee shop.

“We have to find them this housing.”

Even though council has approved the two biggest employee housing projects in recent years — the Rainbow subdivision and the athletes’ village — there are still concerns about the short-term Olympic demands on a housing inventory generally taxed beyond its limits every winter. Those two projects will not be available in the immediate short-term.

Quinlan pointed to companies like Bell Canada who are now looking to secure housing for workers in the three to four months leading up to the Games, during the Games and after the Games.

Telecommunications workers are just one example of the workforce needed for the Games. There will also be security staff, volunteers, bus drivers, cleaning staff — to name just a few.

That could potentially affect the already stretched winter housing inventory in 2010.

Norm Silins, Bell’s general manager of Olympic services, confirmed this week that the company needs to secure housing for 450 workers — 200 of those will be in Whistler, the remainder in Vancouver.

“We’ve been looking with some of the strata councils and the hotels as well,” he said, adding that Olympic organizers are facilitating the discussions.

“(The Bell employees will) be doing the overlay installation for all the telecommunications requirements… and at Games time they will be operating the network that we have dedicated to the Games.”

Mayor Ken Melamed was not surprised to hear the concerns raised at the Dialogue Café.

“It has been so top of mind for everybody,” he said the following day. “It’s something we live with on a daily basis here. We know that it’s highly unpredictable one-year to the next. Different factors will come into play, some more challenging than others.”

He suggested some housing could be freed up shortly as work wraps up on major projects such as the Whistler Sliding Centre and the Whistler Nordic Centre — two $100 million-plus developments for the 2010 Games. The Sea to Sky Highway work is also expected to wrap up before the Games, potentially freeing up more units.

In addition, the athletes’ village is expected to be ready and available for Olympic organizers by the summer of 2009. That could ease some more pressure.

The mayor added that he has seen contingency plans for a temporary “work camp” at the athletes’ village.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games (VANOC) released a statement this week from Nejat Sarp, vice president, village and accommodations, in response to questions about the work camp and securing accommodation.

“To date there is no plan to build a temporary work camp beside the athletes’ village. Currently we are focused on delivering the number of beds we’ve been requested to deliver which encompasses the technical requirements for all user groups. We are looking at a number of options with respect to housing VANOC employees before the games however it will be dependent on the construction time table.”

The mayor said it’s VANOC’s responsibility to provide housing for its sponsors and work staff, acting in good faith as one of the resort’s partners. The organization, he added, has been extremely respectful of Whistler’s needs to date.

“My expectation is that as good partners they wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize our employee housing needs in putting on the Games,” he said after the meeting.

“We’re all in this together. We can’t compromise one side of the Games for the other.”

Community organizations, however, have already begun to take proactive steps to deal with the issue, forming the H.O.M. E. (Housing Our Many Employees) project.

“We’re trying to provide more accommodation without going out and building more,” said Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) general manager Marla Zucht.

The WHA, in conjunction with the Whistler Chamber of Commerce and the municipality, is hoping to entice homeowners to enter their properties, be it a home, a suite or a room in a home, into the H.O.M.E. pool. A property manager will run the program, effectively acting as the landlord.

It is designed to be a hassle-free rental experience for owners who may otherwise not rent their units.

Zucht said they estimate roughly 50 per cent of the 9,000 homes in Whistler are not utilized.

“There is opportunity and potential to tap into that market,” she said.

The goal is to secure a minimum of 100 seasonal beds from the inventory for the upcoming winter season.