Editorial 

WHA has come a long way; there's still a long way to go

The Whistler Housing Authority has been nominated for a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation award for its Beaver Flats employee housing project. The nomination is some much-deserved recognition for the WHA, which has done a lot to make Whistler sustainable in its nearly six years of existence.

Think back to the mid-90s, when Whistler was holding proposal calls for projects that included employee or resident-restricted housing. The housing fund, based on surcharges on development - primarily the frantic building of Village North - was ripening to the tune of more than $6 million. Rumours about the fund having been spent or no longer existing abounded.

The municipality created the housing authority, on the recommendation of an independent consultant, to get on with the much-delayed job of building and facilitating the development of resident-restricted housing. The WHA and municipal council decided that a variety of types of resident-restricted housing should be built and incorporated within existing neighbourhoods.

At that time, and for a few years to follow, each housing project, whether proposed by the WHA or a private developer, met with the same reaction at the public hearing stage: people were in favour of employee housing, just not that particular project in their neighbourhood. Some of the arguments were ridiculous; many would have been slanderous, had it been possible to slander a whole group of future tenants.

In the last five years the WHA has built more than 100 units of resident-restricted housing - virtually all of it done with no involvement or money from the provincial or federal governments - and facilitated the development of hundreds of others.

Private developers, most specifically Intrawest, have also created substantial amounts of resident-restricted housing in recent years. Most of the private sector units have been sold to permanent residents, while much of the WHA housing is available on a rental basis.

But despite the building boom in employee housing, and the involvement of groups like the chamber of commerce in advocating for housing projects, the future is ominous. The employee housing fund has been used up. Many middle management people have moved to Pemberton or Squamish, where they could afford to buy homes at market value. And the majority of Whistler employees still reside in private, non-regulated suites or houses.

This last point is alarming given the continuing hot Whistler real estate market, substantially fuelled by the cap on development. There is not a lot of real estate for sale, at any price.

A red-hot real estate market isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it has implications for the majority of employees who live in free-market suites and houses. Suites were once considered "mortgage helpers" in Whistler houses. But many of the people who can afford to buy single-family homes these days can afford to keep the suites empty, and chose to do so.

With little in the way of single-family housing coming on the market in the foreseeable future the next trend - assuming the cap remains in place and the demand for single-family homes continues - is the gentrification of older neighbourhoods. Older houses and suites that have provided affordable housing will be torn down. And anyone who can afford to buy, tear down and build in the Whistler market probably doesn't need the revenue from a suite.

The municipality is looking at some "non-cost initiatives" to convince these people to include suites when they re-build. Extra square footage, for example, may be allowed if a resident-restricted suite is included and rented to employees.

This isn't the only option for future resident housing. The Olympic land bank could be the site for a great deal of housing, but it is years away and will require a substantial investment - by someone - to become a reality. There may also be private proposals, although developers may be shy to come forward given what happened to the Vision Pacific proposal last year.

But what can't be forgotten is that there is a need to keep people living in Whistler - employees and retirees. A survey by the chamber of commerce of its members last winter illustrated the demand for employee housing. The Comprehensive Sustainability Plan now underway is supposed to help determine how much more housing is needed.

Whistler has made a lot of progress on resident housing in recent years, by changing attitudes and with made-in-Whistler solutions. More progress is needed. Solutions will require innovation and the participation of businesses as well as the municipality and WHA.

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