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Seniors want reconsideration of new Whistler Housing Authority rental criteria

Main issue surrounds new $300K asset limit to rent restricted units
PURPOSE BUILT The Whistler Housing Authority's senior-targeted rental project at 8350 Bear Paw Trail in Rainbow, seen here under construction in July. File Photo by Braden Dupuis

Members of Whistler's senior community are hoping the municipality will reconsider the Whistler Housing Authority's (WHA) new rental criteria, which they say does not accommodate seniors' often distinct financial situations.

In July, council adopted the new criteria, which set out to refine WHA eligibility and enforcement guidelines to ensure more equitable access to non-market housing. Prior to the changes, members of the Whistler senior advocacy group, the Mature Action Community (MAC), were placed on a separate waitlist from other renters in the community and given first right of refusal when units opened up. (Seniors still have priority on purpose-built seniors' residences, such as the new WHA project at 8350 Bear Paw Trail in Rainbow.)

Of particular issue for the seniors that Pique heard from is the new maximum asset limit which deems anyone with assets, including real estate and other assets such as investments in financial markets, tax-free savings accounts or GICs, above $300,000 ineligible to rent a WHA unit. The seniors say the $300,000 limit isn't enough for a sound retirement plan.

"You can't apply the same standard for people who want to retire as you can to everyone else," added Dave Ashton.

"You can't live on CPP or old-age security, which may come to $1,300 a month in rent, when the rents for some of these places is $1,500," said Bob Calladine.

(Both Ashton and Calladine are MAC members, but stressed they are speaking as private citizens.)

Last month, Olwen Kuiper wrote a letter to council also expressing concern over the asset limit, which does not factor in RRSPs and RRIFs.

"One can have unlimited funds in an RRSP/RRIF and as long as they have less than $300,000 in non-registered savings, they are qualified. This could potentially mean they have $600,000 or more of savings," he wrote. "But someone who has limited funds in Registered savings and who has $301,000 of regular savings, let's say, is disqualified and would have no recourse.

"This is not fair and not what we are after when dealing with our aging residents."

Agreeing with Kuiper's point, Coun. Cathy Jewett said it was "the RRSP exclusion that really gets me.

"It's a matter of equity," she added.

Jewett also believes seniors need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis with consideration of the financial burdens seniors often face later in life—particularly in a place like Whistler, where there is no assisted living.

"People actually need a lot more money than they think they do because you have to think, unfortunately, of the worst-case scenario," she said. "If you need to have live-in care, if you get advanced Alzheimer's and you need full care and need to live in a secure environment ... then is that something you're going to need to be ready for? "The person who has $300,000 in their 70s or 80s may not be able to absorb those kinds of changes to their life."

Calladine also acknowledged the situation some local seniors find themselves in after having purchased land for relatively cheap upon arriving in Whistler decades ago. He cited the example of a local senior on a fixed income who lives in a small, dilapidated A-frame in Creekside and wants to downsize to a smaller, modern WHA unit. While Calladine described the cabin as "a teardown," the land it sits on is now worth $1.2 million, disqualifying him from the rental waitlist.

"The perception everyone has [is that he's wealthy], and nobody is willing to relinquish that perception because ... there's a housing crisis in Whistler," Calladine said.

In response, Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton said in a follow-up interview that the WHA is intended "to provide housing for people who cannot access it in the market. I remain committed to that vision for the WHA and for our community."

Ashton believes the new asset limit is actually preventing turnover on the WHA waitlist by making it harder for seniors looking to downsize to move into restricted housing.

"You have to recognize that people have houses as their main retirement asset, they're going to sell it and then move in [to WHA housing]," he noted.

Before WHA rolled out its new eligibility criteria, MAC conducted an informal survey of members to gauge interest in the senior-targeted WHA project at 8350 Bear Paw Trail. Calladine said 50 seniors expressed interest, but that number dropped off significantly after the WHA announced it would be tweaking its eligibility requirements. The 20-unit building did end up drawing 11 working seniors in the end, who recently signed leases, confirmed the WHA.

"MAC has worked for years on developing seniors' housing criteria," Ashton said. "They got it and then somebody found a way to make it more difficult."

Crompton acknowledged that the RMOW is open to re-assessing the new WHA criteria if necessary.

"From the beginning, we've said that we are implementing these changes with a willingness to iterate, improve and adjust as we move forward."