Editorial 

Time for businesses to step forward on employee housing

Six months after members of the chamber of commerce jammed council chambers to send a message about the need for employee housing, a chamber committee has finally followed through on a promise to keep the issue before the public.

The committee last week began circulating a survey to local businesses, asking if they are interested in an alternative model for delivering employee housing. The concept would see a developer build and own rental units, which would be leased to local businesses on a yearly basis. The businesses would then sublease the units to their employees.

The units would be governed by licence of occupation, rather than the Residential Tenancy Act, which would allow employers to tie occupancy to employment, just as Whistler-Blackcomb has done with its staff housing for years. If an employee ceased to work for the business that leased a unit, the employee would have to vacate the unit immediately. Under the Residential Tenancy Act a tenant requires 30 days notice of eviction.

One of the reasons the concept is attractive is that the housing is affordable for businesses as well as employees. Businesses only have to guarantee a lease, which they can collect from their employees, rather than buy housing.

Of course such a project is unlikely to make any money for the developer unless it is part of a larger development package. Local builder Tim Regan was proposing such a package last spring. In fact, it was largely the municipality’s rejection of that proposal that prompted chamber members to appear before council.

Since then the proposal has been revamped. Assuming a prompt response on the survey, the project could conceivably come to council again early in the new year and construction could start in the spring, meaning units would be available next winter. That’s one of the reasons the timing of the survey is important; there are others. Consider:

• The supply of "market" employee housing – largely suites in single family homes – is going to diminish each year, as older homes are torn down to make way for houses that reflect Whistler property values. To date, the municipality hasn’t found a way to ensure that this gentrification includes suites for employees.

• The municipality, through the Whistler Housing Authority, has spent virtually all of the money it had accumulated in the employee housing fund. That money has been spent wisely, producing several employee housing projects, but there is little commercial development left in Whistler to replenish the fund.

• There has been a strong suggestion from the current council that it wouldn’t build much additional employee housing even if it had more money. The feeling is that the more employee housing the municipality builds, the more non-tourism-related businesses come to town, with more employees, who increase the demand for more employee housing. In other words, the municipality feels it can’t build its way out of the employee housing shortage. That’s a philosophical point of view many businesses don’t agree with. However, the municipality has hired consultants to explore ways of making some of the existing stock of private housing available to employees.

• How busy this winter will be remains only an educated guess, but the feeling among many is that even if businesses are holding off on hiring staff until December, it’s no easier to find a place to live in this year of economic uncertainty than it has been in past years.

Over the years there have been lots of discussions and arguments about the need for employee housing and who should provide it. Local business owners and managers by and large haven’t participated in public hearings on employee housing projects, leaving councillors to bear the brunt of NIMBY threats and anger.

The situation has changed. The employee housing fund is all but gone and the municipality isn’t actively pursuing new employee housing projects. If businesses feel there is a need for more employee housing – and they know first-hand how staffing levels and quality of service are affected by housing – it is time for them to step forward.

The survey currently making the rounds presents an opportunity for business owners to invest in their businesses without taking out a mortgage. This is not another consultant’s report or a political position taken by an official, it’s an opportunity for the business community to speak up and put a little money down.

Speak now or suffer in silence.

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