A challenging balancing act 

  • photo by mike crane / tourism whistler

"WHA (Whistler Housing Authority) isn't doing anything to ease the housing situation!"

"The RMOW doesn't give a damn about housing employees!"

"I can't believe the greed of some landlords!"

Ah, social media. Distracter, entertainer, wasteland, last resort of chronic complainers, trollville. All those quotes above come from there. Only one of them is true.

And frankly, it grows weary and tiresome. So here's a reality check: The WHA doesn't create resident-restricted housing; it only manages it. The RMOW not only gives a damn, it's done a lot — and is still doing a lot — to meet its goal of housing 75 per cent of the local workforce in resident-restricted, hopefully affordable housing. Oh, and here's the cruellest reality check: Nobody owes you a place to live. Stop yer bitching.

Undeniably, there is a shortage of affordable housing in Whistler. File that nugget of wisdom under The Sun Rises in the East; it has always been thus although, yes, it's worse now than it used to be — see quote three above. Also undeniably, more employee housing is being created. And the very substantial amount of employee housing that already exists has been created by the efforts of the "uncaring" RMOW and a number of others who understood the benefits of housing employees in town instead of not giving a damn.

Irony: Part I. If you're a fan of irony — who isn't — it was just a few years ago the RMOW was being accused of providing too much employee housing. Really. I'm not making this up but I know you weren't here then, or your short-term memory has been annihilated so let me tell you the story.

Shortly after the Olympics, when the 276 units in Cheakamus Crossing and the 241 units in Rainbow came online, there was an uproar among a number of homeowners who rented suites in their homes to employees. Their tenants disappeared! They couldn't con new tenants into paying the prices they used to get from the old ones. They were mad as hell at the RMOW for screwing up their good thing and having the temerity to provide stable, affordable homes for their tenants, who used to live in fear they'd be kicked out when their landlords sold or decided to "renovict" them.

There were even one or two years not long thereafter when local businesses reported, in the annual survey WHA conducts, "Hey, no problem housing employees." There was even a year when fresh-faced seekers who rolled into town in the autumn reported no problem finding accommodation... but difficulty finding a job! Really. I'm not making that up either.

Understandably, everyone felt the employee housing pressure was off. At least temporarily.

But no one, including the business community, who'd been frantically imploring the RMOW to do SOMETHING! ANYTHING! to kickstart tourism after the 2008 global economic collapse, foresaw the boom just around the corner.

So here we are, in 2017, business having grown faster than anyone ever expected, with the same business community frantically imploring the RMOW to do SOMETHING! ANYTHING! about the lack of employee housing, their chorus being joined by employees and wannabe employees themselves.

Let me take a moment to inject a factoid here. There are 110 housing units either being constructed as we speak or about to be started that will be fully occupied when they're completed over the next three years. Not nearly enough but not nothing. And it adds to the 1,900-plus housing units already under management by WHA. If you think that's nothing, you need to break out of your bubble.

But it isn't enough. We'd like more, please. Yesterday.

How much more? Who's going to pay? Will that really solve the problem or is the resort's continuing growth simply going to stay ahead of any efforts to build employee housing until we build ourselves into an even less liveable community?

The most-shrill voices lay the responsibility at the RMOW's door. But if the community is currently housing its target of 75 percent of employees within its boundaries — with no direct taxpayer dollars having been involved — what's the compelling argument for the muni doing even more?

Well, one argument is the one business puts forward. They can't find sufficient employees to meet their staffing needs. They operate at reduced hours. They can't provide the service levels customers expect. They shouldn't be responsible for housing their own employees. Oh, and they can't afford the rents greedy landlords make them pay. So the muni should do something about that too!

Irony: Part II. The precursor to WHA was the Whistler Valley Housing Society. It was started in 1983 — total number of employee housing units at that time: 0 — as a not-for-profit organization to address the lack of employee housing. It was a volunteer group. It was organized by and membership was limited to EMPLOYERS! Why? Because they recognized employers themselves were an essential element in solving the problem. How times have changed.

Times have changed though. Whistler is a mature — business cycle — resort. There isn't much left to build, especially anything called Renaissance. The only significant land available for employee housing is part of the RMOW's Olympic legacy lands. So that's where the ultimate solution is going to be found. Unfortunately, that means more building in Cheakamus, more people relying on cars and/or transit to get to work, more gridlock and frustration.

But it's not going to happen overnight, nor should it. Anyone who thinks this business cycle is going to follow a straight-line trajectory probably thought the 2008 downturn would never end. The muni should keep bringing employee housing on line... prudently. No man camps. No Atco trailers. No teepee villages. You don't build social infrastructure to simply serve the transient needs of business.

Believe it or not, there's a parallel here to Haitians crossing into Quebec, claiming refugee status. With the best of humanitarian intentions, the Prime Minister turned on that tap when he offered Canada as a refuge. Perhaps he should have foreseen the desperation The Orange One's efforts to whiten the U.S. would have on people who thought they'd already found refuge south of the border. But he didn't and desperate times call for desperate actions.

But the tide has turned since his government's efforts to reach out to the potential refugee communities and let them know Canada isn't necessarily the pushover they thought.

I don't expect the RMOW and Tourism Whistler to start encouraging people to stay away but perhaps they don't need to put quite the effort into bringing them here they have been. Maybe we don't need to break records every season every year the way we have been. Maybe it's the first step in the 12-Step program we need to figure out how much is enough and how we're ever going to deal with our limits to growth.

"You may say I'm a dreamer... but I'm not the only one."

That quote's true too.


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