Council warned of potential legal action 

Employee housing residents challenge new formula

Faced with the threat of another legal challenge to its employee housing program, council is discussing its recent decision to change the price appreciation formula on existing housing projects.

Nineteen Mile Creek resident Greg Dobbin informed the board of the Whistler Housing Authority and council that he had already been in touch with a lawyer. And not just any lawyer.

Dobbin said he has sought advice from George Macintosh, the lawyer representing Barnfield residents in their ongoing lawsuit against the municipality, which challenges the employee housing covenants on their properties.

"Should you not change your decisions there are probably going to be legal ramifications to that, which is disappointing because in a community like this we should be able to talk about this stuff and discuss it with one another like gentlemen and sort it out and not have to resort to the lawyers…" said Dobbin, one of several residents to speak at last Wednesday’s emotional housing forum at the Westin Resort & Spa.

Homeowners in 19 Mile Creek as well as the Beaver Flats duplexes and the Bear Ridge complex, which total 190 units, are worried about the ramifications of council’s recent decision to change their appreciation formula upon resale.

Now when the units are sold, new owners are tied to the Core Consumer Price Index, which appreciates at roughly two per cent a year.

This differs from the previous formula, which was tied to the Greater Vancouver Regional District Housing Price Index (HPI). The three projects have increased in price dramatically over the past five years because of the HPI formula – one of the reasons why council chose to change the formula. The idea is to ensure the housing inventory is affordable not just for the people who buy in first but also for the generations who follow. The core CPI will also apply to all new housing projects, such as the Nita Lake townhomes.

When asked at the meeting, WHA general manager Marla Zucht said they too sought legal advice before making the decision.

Based on that advice, the board felt it was within their legal ability to change the formula because it does not affect the agreements with current owners, only future owners.

But current owners still feel as though the deal is being changed on them midstream. They worry that having some units appreciating at a slower rate in their complex could impact the value of homes still tied to the HPI.

As evidenced at the meeting the formula change has left some feeling wary and bitter, some even wanting to leave Whistler.

"It’s the level of trust," said homeowner Shelley Quinn. "When are you going to change your mind next time?"

Dobbin also warned council they could be losing votes come the next election in 2008.

"It’s going to be tough for me and tough for the people in this room to vote for you guys if you don’t listen to us and change your mind when you make mistakes," he said, wrapping up his tirade to the sound of loud applause from roughly 200 community members.

There was skepticism, too, that their opinions could reverse any decisions already made.

"Is there any chance that what we say tonight, that it’s going to change or am I just wasting my time?" asked Michelle Antil, who also owns a home at 19 Mile Creek.

But the board said they were open to suggestions from the community. At the same time, they are trying to keep employee housing affordable.

"The HPI was clearly a mistake," said board member Kirby Brown, attempting to defuse the emotional situation. "Is the CPI right?

"We’re not out here to try and screw anybody out of money. "We’re trying to listen better."

Though the appreciation formula was the genesis for the meeting, the two and half hour forum revealed a disconnect between community members and the WHA. There were complaints about the three-strike rule for waitlisters looking at homes, complaints about the lack of consultation before making the appreciation change, and even criticisms about the fundamental principle of price restricted housing.

But Whistler’s Mayor Ken Melamed emphatically defended the town’s employee housing program against its critics at the meeting, some of whom were calling for no price caps on employee housing, instead letting an abundant supply of housing regulate price.

There’s an obvious answer to why Whistler can’t lift the cap he said. Look at Vail and Aspen, he said, who don't come close to housing the 75% of workers that Whistler has managed to retain. "They can’t provide enough supply," said Melamed.

The failed models, he said, are those that continue to insist there is no need for a price cap.

"This is not about investment," said the mayor. "It’s about people making choices because they want to live in Whistler."

The WHA and council met this week to review the issues and comments raised at the forum. A municipal release states residents can expect to hear from the WHA shortly on future public engagement process and other issues.


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