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Seasonal housing the main objective

Housing survey shows decreasing percentage of workers choose to live in Whistler More and more employees are choosing to live outside of Whistler according to a just released report by the Whistler Housing Authority.

Housing survey shows decreasing percentage of workers choose to live in Whistler

More and more employees are choosing to live outside of Whistler according to a just released report by the Whistler Housing Authority.

The reason behind the trend, states the report, is "the unavailability of affordable housing."

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines affordable housing as that requiring 30 per cent, or less, of an individual’s monthly income.

Last year’s WHA survey found that 48 per cent of Whistler employees spend 30 per cent of their income on rent. A further 22 per cent spent 40 per cent of their income on rent. Over 44 per cent of employees said their rent was unaffordable.

While most would agree that the housing authority is doing an excellent job in providing homes for long-term residents, rental housing for seasonal employees is still an issue for most businesses in town.

"I think what hasn’t been addressed is the seasonal employee problem," said David Campbell of Keir Fine Jewellery.

"It certainly directly affects me as a businessman.

"The kids aren’t coming here any more because it’s not a fun place to live. They can’t get a place to live for a reasonable price and they have to work three jobs to survive. All of a sudden that defeats the purpose of coming here to enjoy the mountains, like they are meant to be able to do."

Campbell’s concern is that failure to provide seasonal housing will affect the overall guest experience and the vitality of the community.

And Campbell is frustrated that at least one employee housing project has failed, "for one stupid reason or another."

The results are that some businesses may have to cut back hours due to staffing shortages, they may be forced to hire unqualified people, and most businesses have to pay higher wages than you will find in the rest of the province to offset the high cost of living.

Tim Wake of the WHA says it’s a problem everyone recognizes.

"We acknowledge that we haven’t been successful in creating the 500 seasonal rental beds that we talked about in our business plan," he said.

‘That is probably our primary objective right now, to look for those 500 seasonal beds.

"These solutions are very difficult to deliver. That is the bottom line. There are just so many obstacles to creating this type of stuff."

There are several factors impacting employee housing in the resort. Two of the most prominent are the decreasing number of market suites available and the sale of homes lived in by residents to people who plan to redevelop the property into vacation homes.

The strong real estate market in the valley drives both trends.

The result, explained Wake, is that new employee-restricted housing, which has come on line, is just barely keeping up with the attrition of housing in the free market.

Several initiatives are being investigated to try and offset the trend, as continuing to build is not considered a viable option by most in the community.

For example, said Wake, a strata council could chose to develop unused common space into an employee-restricted suite and then use the revenue to offset fees.

According to this year’s survey, about 10,641 employees out of a total of 14,200 lived within municipal boundaries during the 2001-2002 winter season. So about 25 per cent lived out of town.

In 1998-1999 20 per cent lived outside of Whistler.

While housing obviously remains an issue for employers the survey found that: "In comparison with last year’s survey, no increase was found in the proportion of employers who provide accommodation to their employees."

The difficulty in housing has also meant that businesses were not always able to get all the staff they needed.

"Nearly one in five large employers and one in ten smaller employers were not able to achieve full staffing levels," states the report, based on surveys carried out last May and June.

"Shortages for the 2001-2002 winter season have been estimated at 272 employees, a few less than the previous winter season."

Nearly one in five large employers (18 per cent) and one in 10 smaller employers (9 per cent) were not able to achieve full staffing levels.

The report is based on a phone survey of 270 businesses and organizations within the municipality. Of those businesses, 217 had six or more employees and 53 had fewer than six employees.

It is estimated that the number of employees will grow by 2.5 per cent this year, the same growth the resort saw last season. If predictions are accurate that will mean about 14,400 workers will be here for the 2002-2003 winter season.

Employees were not included in this survey as they had been in previous years.

The report was presented to council Monday night.

"It confirmed what we all know," said Councillor Ken Melamed.

"The current trends and the gentrification of the resort is decreasing the number of residents who live here.

"Clearly, the study shows that people are moving to Squamish and Pemberton and even as the demand for employees increases our housing supply is only managing to keep a static level in the number of people who are living here."

Melamed believes that Whistler is doing a better job than any other resort in North America of trying to tackle these issues.

But he also feels that it is time for the resort to get some new policies and plans in place before Whistler finds itself in the same position as some U.S. resorts which are struggling to keep 40 per cent of their residents in town.

"I have been arguing for a new policy and I have come to believe there is only one solution," said Melamed,

"It is not going to be a quick one. What we have to do is acquire and convenant existing inventory in Whistler. And we can’t just do it with homes because the key to population health is diversity. We have to get a diversity of housing stock.

"What is going to keep the town healthy is we are going to have to create opportunity for new people to come to town."

Councilor Kristi Wells was also concerned by the survey’s findings.

"We have to protect what we have got," she said.

"But to protect what we have got means we have to come to a sustainable place in housing and I believe that we can get there but we must use a combination of initiatives.

"I don’t think we need to build 4,000 more beds. I think if we fill the rental pocket it will help stop gouging and that will spread out all over.

"This is not a time to say we are catching up."

Councillor Ted Milner is hopeful that the athlete’s village, proposed as part of the legacy program should Whistler and Vancouver win the right to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, will provide for some of the future housing needs.

The village would be built in the Callaghan Valley. Currently the municipality is in discussions with the province about getting the part of the valley as a community landbank whether or not the Olympics come to town.

Milner does not believe the resort is in a crisis situation when it comes to housing.

"I’m not sure at the moment that we have a crisis," he said.

"I think that we have moved forward with the 3,800 bed units we have put in place and overall we are housing 75 per cent of residents.

"Everybody keeps talking crisis but I’m not sure there is one."

However he does believe the resort needs to monitor the situation carefully and work on initiatives to stop the attrition in market housing for locals.