Decent uptake, but no matches so far for task force's Home Run program 

RMOW files civil claim against homeowner; Survey planned on housing needs

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO BY BRAD KASSELMAN/WWW.COASTPHOTO.COM - Housing hopes The owners of Splitz Grill say they signed up for the Home Run program because they are looking at every available option to help house their staff.
  • File Photo by brad kasselman/www.coastphoto.com
  • Housing hopes The owners of Splitz Grill say they signed up for the Home Run program because they are looking at every available option to help house their staff.

While dozens of businesses and homeowners have expressed interest in the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) Home Run program, the initiative has yet to result in any matches.

As of Jan. 31, the property-matching program had 36 businesses signed on and 24 "expressions of interest" from homeowners.

One business owner, Cathy McGeough of Splitz Grill, said she signed up for the program out of necessity.

"I am trying to avail myself of every single thing that there is out there in order to help staff my business," McGeough said. "I feel like I have no choice but to do that."

Of the 17 staffers employed at Splitz, two are living "half in vans and half on couches," while another is sharing a studio with someone and living in shifts.

McGeough has also moved out of her condo — and is now living in someone's basement — in order to rent it to her staff.

"(Housing in Whistler) has always been interesting, and some years have been much better than other years, but this is just ridiculous," she said.

Though she's not overly optimistic the Home Run program will be effective for her, "I'm going to keep at it, because I want it to work," McGeough said. "I'm just not sold."

The lack of matches may be partly due to the timing of the program's implementation, said Whistler Housing Authority general manager Marla Zucht, in an email.

"To date, none have taken the next step to rent to one of the businesses, in some cases due to the fact their properties are currently rented and they have indicated wanting to wait until end of the winter season and current rental commitments," Zucht wrote. "Our next outreach efforts will be to absentee and/or second homeowners who have vacant properties."

For the Delta Whistler Village Suites, which employs upwards of 100 people and doesn't have staff accommodations onsite or close by, the lack of housing has made it harder to recruit this winter, said general manager Jeff Kennedy.

"We were not really even getting into the process, because one of their first questions would be, 'Do you have housing?'" Kennedy said. "And when we said no we didn't, (applicants) kind of end the conversation there."

Kennedy said he's optimistic the Home Run program can be beneficial for everyone in the long run.

"Obviously (homeowners) are looking to make some revenues off their properties and I think that's a fair thing to be looking for, but at the same time they're helping out the community, and making sure that tourism can stay alive and well, and that's not going to happen if we don't have people to service the guests," he said. "I think the plan was a great one and the proposal is a solid one, and I just hope that we can get some matches."

Full-time staffing levels at Whistler Cooks, another Home Run sign-on, fluctuate from 20 to more than 50, said Alistair Cray, director of finance and human resources.

"At the moment they all have housing, but that kind of goes with the territory. They wouldn't be working here if they didn't," he said, adding that Whistler Cooks hasn't run into too much trouble in terms of staffing so far this season.

"Overall, to date it hasn't been a huge issue, but looking to the future there's definitely some concerns there," Cray said. "(Home Run) sort of came online after we had set our winter outline and our staffing in place, so I think the benefit might be this spring."

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said the enticement of the program is that it makes "one-stop shopping" much easier for landlords, "because they will be dealing with a property manager retained by the WHA, there's a guarantee about the payment of rent, there's a guarantee about how the property will be left, the condition of the property at the end of the lease," she said. "Hopefully as time progresses we'll start seeing matches, and by the fall of this year hopefully we'll have quite a number of matches."

While the Home Run program is the highest-profile initiative to arise thus far from the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing, there are other initiatives in the works as well.

RMOW FILES CIVIL CLAIM OVER ILLEGAL NIGHTLY RENTALS

On Jan. 12, the RMOW filed a civil claim against a homeowner renting on Airbnb.

The claim alleges the defendant, Sylvia Koltzenburg, provides her house for "non-residential" accommodation through Airbnb in a neighbourhood that isn't zoned for temporary lodging or commercial use.

The claim states that the RMOW has received complaints about the non-residential use of the property, that Koltzenburg does not have a business license for nightly rentals, and seeks compliance on the part of the homeowner.

But Koltzenburg could just be the first of many, Wilhelm-Morden said.

"We've had numerous cases where we have sent letters to people who we thought were not in compliance, and they have immediately stopped doing illegal short-term nightly rentals," the mayor said. "This was one who said she would comply, then she didn't, so we took enforcement proceedings, and we will be doing that with others if they refuse to comply."

Reached for comment, Koltzenburg said that while she still rents out a one-bedroom suite in her house, she no longer rents the main house long term after incurring thousands of dollars in damages.

"It's mostly a nightmare," she said in an email. "Airbnb folks paying good money come to contribute to Whistler, not to party, tear apart the home..."

There are also early discussions among property owners about forming a grassroots landlords association, Koltzenburg added.

In a follow-up phone call, Koltzenburg said she rents the home out five or six times a year on Airbnb, and offers her guests a personalized experience they wouldn't get elsewhere.

"I am hosting these families before they come, for weeks before they come — I make restaurant reservations, I make recommendations, I buy tickets for adventures, for ziplining, for the tube park, for everything, you know? I cook a dinner for them when they arrive, there are fresh flowers in the home," she said. "The experience that the folks take away is that this is truly a personalized experience of Whistler, it's not just come and ski and drink. Whistler becomes home, Whistler becomes a part of their community, and they go back and tell everybody about the experience."

Koltzenburg said business licenses or additional taxes for Airbnb renters would be fair, or even if they were given 30 days a year to rent their homes — but the notice of civil claim, received three weeks before Christmas, is "mean spirited," she added, and if a compromise isn't reached, some landlords might just leave.

"I think a lot of us are going to leave Whistler. I can't afford to stay in this home... and I don't want to stay in this community if this is the way they treat people that are ordinary citizens that contribute to the community," she said. "You know, I killed myself working for the Olympics... I thought this was my community. I no longer feel it is."

Wilhelm-Morden said she thinks the increased enforcement will have an impact.

"I encourage homeowners who are renting their properties out to look at the zoning bylaw to make sure they're complying," she said. "And if they're not, stop doing it."

HOUSING SURVEY, COMMUNITY FORUM IN THE WORKS

A public meeting on housing was originally planned for February, but has been pushed back as the Mayor's Task Force works to gather more information.

The task force is working on a survey for property owners, prospective tenants and short-term seasonal residents to better inform what its next steps should be.

The survey will be compared to one that was completed back in 2006, Wilhelm-Morden said.

"We're pulling out that survey so we've got the questions that were asked at that time, and we'll look at what we've got now in comparison to what we had then," she said. "We should have (the survey) out I think within about three weeks."

A community forum will follow sometime in the future.

"Given how successful our Transportation Advisory Group open house was, with all the data that we presented, we just really want to ensure that when people come out to the Mayor's Task Force open house that we're at the same kind of level," the mayor said.

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