Affordability a wobbly leg on the sustainability stool

Five years ago, when the Whistler Housing Authority was created, Whistler was facing a crisis in affordable housing. From the time of Whistler’s first employee housing building, Whistler Creek Court, which was completed in 1984, until 1997 only 18 affordable housing projects were built, six of which were Blackcomb staff housing buildings.

The fear five years ago was that unless there was more affordable housing, to keep employees living in Whistler, ultimately the resort would not be sustainable.

Since 1997 the housing authority, working with the municipality, private developers and the $6 million employee housing fund, has helped to create 27 more affordable housing projects, with another couple slated for completion by the end of the year or early in 2003. There are now about 3,850 resident-restricted beds in Whistler, compared to approximately 1,500 prior to 1997. Another 450 resident-restricted beds are planned for projects in Spring Creek, the Hyatt hotel on Park Georgia’s lands, and an eighth Blackcomb staff housing building.

This is a huge success story, one that other resort communities are studying. And it was done with virtually no assistance from federal or provincial governments.

The employee housing fund is now exhausted and the Whistler Housing Authority’s role has evolved to one of managing and maintaining the existing affordable housing stock. But the demand for affordable housing has not disappeared. Earlier this year a Whistler Chamber of Commerce survey of local employers found an urgent need for 500 more beds for seasonal workers.

The WHA’s target for resident-restricted housing is now 4,800 beds by 2003, with the land bank from the Olympic bid being an important part of the strategy to create those additional 500 beds.

While the WHA has succeeded in its original mandate, over the past five years the issue of affordability and housing has broadened. Liftees and seasonal workers are no longer the only ones who have trouble with the cost of living in Whistler. Homeowners, some of whom have been here for years, are being hit with huge tax bills as property assessments jump every year.

Affordability has always been tied to sustainability, but over the last five years the connection has become clearer. How to address these issues is less apparent.

The Comprehensive Sustainability Plan currently underway is expected to provide direction on the issue of sustainability, including affordability and affordable housing. Steve Bayly, interim general manager of the housing authority, provided some perspective on the problem during a presentation to Whistler council Monday.

Historically, suites in houses have provided a large percentage of housing for Whistler employees, but the cap on development and the red hot real estate market is leading to gentrification – the tearing down of older houses, many with suites, to be replaced by large, luxurious homes without suites. For those who can afford to build in Whistler it doesn’t make sense to include as suite.

There is no more money for the WHA to build resident-restricted housing, but even if there was there are increasing concerns about the capacity and environmental sustainability of the Whistler valley. As the WHA’s annual report states: "It is clear that our locals’ need for affordable housing will not diminish over time. But it is equally clear that how much we choose to build, and what we build, will have an impact on the character and liveability of our community."

One of the housing authority’s goals, as stated in its 2000 report, was to keep 80 per cent of Whistler employees living in Whistler – crucial from the point of view of social and economic sustainability. That goal has now been reduced to 66 per cent.

Bayly also noted that Whistler employers have begun targeting employees living in Squamish and Pemberton.

There is more affordable housing in Whistler than ever before, but with gentrification and increasing taxes there may be more people needing affordable housing than ever before. How the three-legged sustainability stool remains balanced in this scenario is what the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan is supposed to show us.

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