Editorial 

Chamber survey shows need for housing among existing businesses

Chamber survey shows need for housing among existing businesses

Overlooked in the March 4 council meeting, which was dominated by discussion of the World Economic Forum and provided such beautiful images as Desmond Tutu renting skis in Whistler, was the presentation by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce and the results of their housing survey.

The chamber found that of 176 businesses surveyed with at least 10 employees, 77 were prepared to guarantee leases if rental housing was available for employees. At first glance that doesn’t sound overly impressive. But broken down further, the survey found those 77 businesses were in need of 343 bedrooms, for 686 employees.

The survey also found a number of businesses that already rent houses for their employees, and with the survey being done in the middle of winter, they weren’t at that time interested in renting additional housing. The survey also found a need for other types of housing.

It was further suggested that the survey was done during a winter when employee housing was less of a crisis than usual, due to the general slump in tourism following Sept. 11, and that if this type of housing was actually available more businesses would step forward.

The presentation didn’t seem to impress too many on council. Ted Milner suggested the municipality had already "stepped up and created housing," that "these are your employees," and that "it’s not up to the municipality to create subsidized housing."

A point of clarification: Yes it is.

It’s not solely the responsibility of the municipality, but then again it never has been.

The municipality created the Whistler Housing Authority to build housing with the employee housing fund, which came from a surcharge on commercial developments. Those funds have been used wisely and, with the support of and zoning by the municipality, have created considerable employee housing.

But that’s not the only source of employee housing. Projects such as Barnfield and 19 Mile Creek were created by private developers. And it was residents of Whistler who invested their money to make this housing a success. The municipality and members of council certainly had to face a great deal of criticism and opposition in rezoning these developments – and deserve credit for withstanding the pressure – but their risk was political. The developers’ and buyers’ risk was financial.

The recent sellout of Intrawest’s 60-unit Bear Ridge employee-restricted project in Spring Creek – in less than five hours – and the success of projects such as the WHA’s Beaver Flats reinforce the chamber’s point that the demand for housing still hasn’t been met.

The municipality seems to recognize that, but questions whether creating more employee housing isn’t attracting more businesses to Whistler, leading to a never ending demand-supply spiral. Milner went so far as to ask if the municipality needed to licence employees.

But what the chamber was saying was, here is hard data from existing businesses in Whistler that are in need of employee housing, now.

The data was collected in response to the municipality’s rejection last year of a proposed employee housing project by a private developer. A modified version of that project, which would see the developer own the housing and businesses guarantee the leases, may still be possible.

Certainly businesses have been tardy in organizing and getting behind employee housing projects, but they are demonstrating an interest now.

And if Desmond Tutu ever does come and rent skis in Whistler he’s going to need people who can set up his bindings for him, and those people are going to need places to live.

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