Editorial 

The media room is the message

By Bob Barnett

As Whistler continues to grapple with buildout and the ramifications of a cap on development, while awaiting the next phase of the comprehensive sustainability plan to help us determine a course through these uncharted waters, a few facts have surfaced to give some clues to where we are and what we’re up against.

The obvious clues are found in the real estate listings and the recent announcement that property value assessments have soared again in the last year, as is to be expected when there is a limited supply of property and a high demand.

Another indicator: Last year Whistler had its first million dollar teardowns – houses purchased for $1 million and then torn down to make way for bigger and better houses. How common this practice has become is not clear as the municipality just started keeping track of housing demolition applications last year.

And for a couple of years it has been the case that those who could afford to buy into the Whistler housing market no longer needed the mortgage-helping revenue that an in-house suite provided. So some homeowners are leaving their suites empty to avoid the hassle of tenants, or converting them to media rooms. A specific room in a home to watch television, DVDs and listen to recorded music now adds more value to a house in the Whistler market than a revenue-producing suite.

The municipality has statistics to show the decline in interest in suites. Ten years ago there were approximately 75 new suites built annually. Today less than 20 suites are built annually, although overall construction levels have also dropped.

The evidence points to a new era in affordable resident housing, if that wasn’t already obvious. The employee housing fund is long gone, the money well spent by the Whistler Housing Authority on projects that created affordable housing for residents. But as a survey by the chamber of commerce found last year, there is (still) an immediate need for 500 employee beds.

As has been pointed out many times by the housing authority, municipal officials and others, resident housing in Whistler is needed to keep the community alive and vibrant. What the chamber survey also showed, indirectly, was that housing is needed to keep Whistler businesses alive and vibrant. At some point in the not too distant future, the value of a business in Whistler may not be determined just by sales and revenues, but also by how much housing the business has secured for staff. Providing housing will become one of the costs of doing business in Whistler, on top of enormous rents. Among other things, that scenario could severely impact what has always been one of Whistler’s strengths: its collection of independent small businesses.

The business community, and the rest of the community, have missed opportunities to address this in the past. About six years ago, units in part of the 19 Mile Creek housing project were offered for sale to chamber members. There were few takers. Today, there would likely be a lineup of businesses waiting to buy those units to ensure housing for staff.

And about two years ago the municipality turned down a project that would have created housing for businesses to sublease to their employees. The project died again last year when one of the partners pulled out, but there is word that it may get yet another chance.

A couple of years ago outgoing WHA general manager Rick Staehli reported to Whistler council that the percentage of Whistler employees who reside in Whistler had dropped below 80 per cent for the first time. Staehli suggested it was going to take a concerted effort to keep the figure from declining further. The original WHA goal of 80 per cent was abandoned with little discussion.

Last fall’s municipal election brought resident housing out into the spotlight again, and with it some new ideas. The municipality is now working on so-called non-cost initiatives. Things such as bonus densities and permitting suites above detached garages may help stem the erosion of existing resident housing, but are unlikely to provide a net increase in resident housing.

Other initiatives: A WHA forum on the benefits of small housing units will be held next week. Infill housing projects may be re-evaluated, and down the road – literally – the Callaghan Valley may provide some opportunities.

Whistler has always worked its way through its housing problems, for better or for worse. But in a housing market where the supply is capped, and where media rooms are worth more than employee suites, it’s going to take a considerable effort to ensure the next generation of Whistler workers, and many of their employers, actually live in Whistler.

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