Employee housing problems not getting any easier

Further proof that Whistler is different from other towns: Shannon Byrne is recognized as one of Canada’s top 40 entrepreneurs under 40 years old, yet her company is seen as part of the problem when it comes to housing employees in Whistler.

Not that Byrne or her company, Paradata, were specifically named by Whistler councillors Tuesday when they discussed the 2001-2003 business plan for the Whistler Housing Authority. But it was made clear that new businesses – home-based, computer-based, warehouse businesses, none of which are related to tourism – are springing up around town, and the people these businesses employ require housing. That throws a monkey wrench into Whistler’s plans. It affects the cap on development and it means the WHA has to refocus on a new target as far as how much housing is needed.

(The new WHA business plan attempts to address that point, setting a new short-term goal of providing 500 additional seasonal rental beds, a response to concerns raised recently by the business community.)

Life is full of contradictions. Many towns, provinces and states around the world are falling all over themselves to attract high-tech companies. These companies are generally considered clean, offer high-paying jobs and – despite the financial meltdown of high-tech stocks in the last 18 months – are part of an industry with a solid future.

Whistler, however, doesn’t appear to want that sort of business because it conflicts with a more important principle locally, the limit on development. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in this town who doesn’t think there should be a limit on development, but in much of the free world you’d be equally hard pressed to find someone opposed to more high-tech industries coming to their town.

Councillor Ted Milner summed up the situation Tuesday, saying Whistler hadn’t yet come to grips with how big the resort should be in terms of number of employees, but "…employees are proliferating. If we’re going to have a cap on development we can’t have an unlimited number of employees in the valley." He went so far as to suggest that perhaps employers should be charged for having more than a certain number of employees.

Councillor Milner’s tongue may have been in overdrive while his mind was still getting up to speed on that last point, but it illustrates the level of exasperation, even desperation, of the municipality and the WHA in trying to take the next step to address employee housing.

The WHA had set a target of 4,300 employee restricted beds, based on the development cap, the number of employees those developments were expected to generate and a goal of housing 80 per cent of Whistler employees in Whistler. It was assumed that one-third of that 80 per cent, or 4,300 employees, would be in employee-restricted housing. That 4,300-bed figure will be reached in the next few years – thanks to the hard work of the WHA and present and previous councils – but the new business plan adds another 500 beds to the mix. Achieving those additional 500 beds "…depends to a large part on the business community’s commitment (e.g. annual leases) to partner with the WHA and private developers," WHA Chair Kristi Wells writes.

But there are other factors challenging the municipality and the WHA. For one, the employee housing fund is nearly exhausted. For another, there is no hard data on how many employees the new non-tourist-related businesses in town have generated. As well, no one knows what the rate of attrition will be in the private sector – which provides approximately two-thirds of employee housing beds – as older homes are torn down and that source of employee housing disappears. The WHA and municipal planning department will be working to get a handle on those figures.

Finally, outgoing WHA general manager Rick Staehli also told council that the original goal of housing 80 per cent of employees in Whistler is no longer realistic. Employee housing, he said, comes down to a question of: "To what degree of subsidy, and by whom?" But even the resident-restricted units are becoming too expensive for some employees.

The new WHA business plan stresses the need to partner with the community to solve these issues. Presumably that means everyone in the community.


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