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Seeking shelter in a storm

Housing search more competitive this year during flurry of job fairs

Despite the best efforts of local organizations and agencies, the seasonal housing situation in Whistler isn’t improving.

Whistler-Blackcomb’s staff housing is already full, the Whistler Housing Authority’s H.O.M.E. matching program has yet to turn up a match, and local classifieds are looking sparse.

Brian Good, manager of Whistler-Blackcomb’s staff accommodation — often referred to as House — is also responsible for finding 88 beds in the valley for WB’s ski and snowboard instructors. So far, they’ve managed to find 68 beds, and Good says staff is working hard to find the additional 20. But it hasn’t been easy.

While finding seasonal housing is usually tough, Good believes this year has been worse than others for a few reasons: the quickly-approaching Olympics, great snow the last two winters, the influx of construction workers, and the absence of one WHA rental building.

“Last year I would have said, ‘oh, you know, there’s a bit of hype,’” said Good.

“This is the first year where all of those factors… have made a noticeable impact on the availability on valley house beds.”

Good says Whistler-Blackcomb recognized this would be a challenging year for seasonal housing, so they added 61 new beds to House to try and create more space, and he is also trying to turn the construction situation around, contacting companies to see when workers will be leaving and preparing to take over the beds they leave behind.

But Karen Bauckham, recruiting manager for Whistler-Blackcomb, says the company is hiring for about 1,000 positions at their annual job fair this week and won’t have housing for all of them.

Bauckham attributes the increased demand for housing to a recent shift in their recruiting operations. Earlier this year, WB pre-hired about 500 people in an effort to create more security for new staff and the company.

“We only have so many beds, so by the time we put beds aside for our pre-hires and for some of the other programs that we have, we had about 300-plus beds left for the recruiting fair,” said Bauckham.

And efforts to turn up additional housing have been frustrating.

Councillor Ralph Forsyth, committee co-chair of WHA’s H.O.M.E. program, says so far, no homeowners have signed onto their matching project and only five employers have signed up, despite their advertising campaign. Forsyth says he doesn’t know why people are hesitant to get involved, but is frustrated by the lack of response from the community.

He says the H.O.M.E. program mitigates risks for owners and would solve the problem for a lot of local businesses, but people need to “step up and participate.”

“Everyone thinks that this is somebody else’s problem, but it’s not — it’s everyone’s problem,” Forsyth said.

“… It is the issue in the resort — there’s nothing more important than this.”

The WHA’s Nesters Pond building is also still out of commission from flooding earlier this year, which means many residents of the 37-unit building are still displaced. Though the WHA had planned to have the building ready by the fall, repairs were more extensive than anticipated, and they now hope work will be complete by the end of the year, which should open up more beds at that time.

General manager Marla Zucht says the WHA’s focus has always been on developing long-term resident-restricted housing, which helps ease the strain on the private rental situation.

“When a tenant or an owner moves into one of our units, it opens up an opportunity for seasonal housing,” she explained.

This year, their weekly tracking of rental units shows there are fewer available than in previous years. Zucht says it is similar to the housing situation they faced in the winter of 2002.

They have also been trying to help with the seasonal housing shortage with new initiatives, like the H.O.M.E. program and Accommodation Seeker. Accommodation Seeker, which was launched about a month ago, is an online service that allows people in need of accommodation to post a personal profile and list the type of accommodation they are seeking.

While she hasn’t heard of any success stories yet, Zucht says the service has been attracting quite a bit of traffic.

Zucht says the WHA receives many calls from people scrambling for housing, and recommends scouring local classifieds and WHA’s website listings, and using word-of-mouth.

“Quite often, the better accommodations may not hit the paper, so when you’re in the pubs or the bookstore or the library, you know, just talk to people.”

In the long-term, Zucht points out that they will have 55 units in the athletes’ village after the 2010 Olympics, some of which will be smaller units that target a specific demographic.

But in the short-term, they’re still looking for solutions.

“We’re looking at some other opportunities for some temporary accommodations, as well, to put onto some existing sites.”

WB’s Good says they have 1,231 beds in staff accommodation, and this year, they have made some very simple changes to the way House is run this year. First, they changed their website to ensure people enroll for the job fair before applying for staff housing.

“Whereas before, anybody would move in and we’d talk to them about the fact that they had to be staff, but they could use this for short-term accommodation, whether or not they were really truly planning to work for us or not.”

They’ve also separated their waitlist, creating one list, for people who have applied for the fair but haven’t been hired yet, and then an actual waiting list for confirmed employees. As of Nov. 6, there were 388 people on the applicant list and only 18 people on the waitlist. Anyone offered jobs will be moved off the applicant list and onto the waitlist, then into House as beds become available.

In September, Good says they knew most of their beds were spoken for in the upcoming season, so they let staff know that they should start looking for alternate housing arrangements for the upcoming season.

This year, staff housing will be for first-year employees only.

“We used to be able to keep a few returning seasonal staff, and now what we say is we still value them as much or more than anybody, but they’ve learned the ins and outs of Whistler,” said Good.

Jodi Annett, coordinator of the Whistler Employment Resources Centre, said they are expecting 800 to 1,000 job seekers at their annual job fair, and have had about 40 employers sign up. She says finding a place for employees to live is high on the priority list of many companies looking to hire in Whistler this year.

“Employers are definitely focusing more on providing housing to potential staff now, more so now than in the past, so that’s part of their recruiting strategy.”

The WERC fair will be held on November 13, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Telus Conference Centre, and the Whistler-Blackcomb fair began Tuesday and runs through Nov. 10 at the Blackcomb Daylodge.