Affordability key to sustainability

Municipal administrator Jim Godfrey and Mayor Hugh O'Reilly announced this week that the first phase of the Whistler. It's our Future process is going to be extended. The announcement, at Monday's reception to update people on the process, followed workshops organized by the chamber of commerce, WORCA and One Whistler.

The three organizations each took their own approach to addressing questions about Whistler's future, rather than following the format for workshops prescribed by consultants to the Whistler. It's our Future process. The chamber had various members speak about issues like employee housing, service in the resort, municipal finances and training, and then the members broke into smaller groups to discuss the issues.

WORCA drew 70 people to their workshop, where attendees discussed 11 of the statements made in the Whistler 2002 document, which is now five years old. With the help of their own facilitators WORCA members, and 18 non-members who also participated, rated Whistler's progress on those statements.

These organizations designed their own workshops out of frustration with the first two "official" workshops. As WORCA's Bob Lorriman said, "The statements at the first workshops were so obvious. But there's been a lot of money invested in this process - too much to abandon it."

Maybe the questions and issues raised in the chamber's and WORCA's sessions would have come up in next weekend's workshops or in phase II of the process, but it's heartening that, 1) the municipality has recognized the public frustration and adapted the process; 2) so many people care about Whistler to speak up and act when they aren't satisfied with the process, and; 3) those people acted constructively, rather than simply attacking the process.

While results of the WORCA workshop are still being compiled, as is input from the first two official workshops, the theme that has emerged consistently from these discussions is that affordability - in all its various shapes and forms - is a major concern. This is hardly news, but the depth of the concern is becoming apparent. Whether it's seniors, youth, business owners, long-time residents, service industry workers or visitors, nearly everyone is feeling the heat.

These people are using many terms that refer obliquely to the problem of affordability - staff turnover, property and school taxes, employee housing, municipal spending, cost of living - and they are all factors in Whistler becoming a sustainable community.

Housing is the key component in the affordability equation, and in keeping a vibrant community alive. While there has been considerable progress in building seasonal employee housing and resident-restricted employee housing in recent years, the housing market is evolving even faster. A few people are now making a business out of leasing a home and sub-letting individual rooms. Those who can now afford to buy houses in Whistler can afford to leave suites in those houses vacant, or, if they buy an older home, they may tear it down and rebuild without a suite. And as property values climb, so do property and school taxes. Homeowners who have a suite or rent out their house usually pass those tax increases on to renters.

About a year and a half ago Rick Staehli, then the general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority, told council that Whistler had dropped below the target mark of housing 80 per cent of employees locally. According to one scenario presented at the chamber's workshop, that percentage will drop further, quickly, if more employee housing isn't built.

This is an affordability issue on several fronts: obviously housing must be affordable for employees, but the community also needs an affordable plan for financing employee housing and resident-restricted housing. And there is the question of whether the resort and the community can afford to have an ever-increasing percentage of employees living in Pemberton and Squamish.

Affordability is also tied to "growth management" and "long-term financial plans" and "attracting a diverse mix of people" and "a comprehensive strategy for acquiring natural areas" and all kinds of other things in the Whistler 2002 document.

One of the ways that Whistler is hoping to address some of the affordability issues is through the Olympic legacies, which are supposed to include a land bank for employee housing and new financial tools, likely in the form of a tax. However, the province and the municipality haven't come to an agreement yet - in fact the municipality has yet to officially endorse the Olympic bid. The general feeling now is that the final list of Olympic legacies bestowed on Whistler may be shorter than originally anticipated.

But regardless of the outcome of negotiations with the province and the IOC's decision on who will host the Olympics in 2010, Whistler needs to address the affordability issue.

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