Housing is the issue, again

"Our challenge is to stay a vibrant community. It’s making people feel that they can see a future for themselves in Whistler. I think that is the most pending and immediate issue."

— Mayor Hugh O’Reilly during 2002 election

The focus is, as was recently stated in a letter following the announcement that the waiting list to purchase a home had topped 400, housing again. And it needn’t be.

There was some action this week, as Councillor and Whistler Housing Authority Chair Nick Davies notified council that he intends to bring forward a motion to get on with building resident-restricted housing in some of the small parcels of lands and street ends identified – in a report that came to council last March – as potential housing sites.

But really, the actual building of resident-restricted housing has slipped off the radar screen in the nearly two years since the last election, as work on the CSP and preparation for the 2010 Olympics has consumed much time and energy of council and staff. These are hugely important issues and will be part of Whistler’s long-term housing solution, but to date they have not helped house anyone.

There is no housing crisis at the moment, nor is there likely to be. The days of television crews coming up from Vancouver to shoot images of youths living in saunas and vans are, for the most part, over. There are still many people living in sub-standard housing but the municipality and the community have, to their credit, recognized the importance of seasonal workers to the vibrancy of Whistler and have created a substantial amount of affordable rental housing to meet their needs.

The situation at the moment is not a crisis because it will not explode if it is not addressed. Instead it will diffuse itself, as people trickle away to other towns and communities that can satisfy the North American dream of home ownership. That is a powerful draw. When people talk about a future most see home ownership as part of it.

Rather than a crisis, the problem now is just as Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said two years ago, making people feel there is a future for them in Whistler. It is the 400 people on the housing authority’s waiting list hoping to buy a place in Whistler.

And it is important to understand where these people have come from. As Whistler has grown and matured more and more people have found careers, rather than jobs. The compensation may still be below what is offered for equivalent positions in the city, but more people are finding themselves in positions in Whistler that provide long-term opportunities. The skills and expertise many people have developed here are in demand, and they are transferable to other locations.

Recognizing the emergence of this sort of Whistler middle class – resort industry professionals – is important because of the emphasis on resort development across B.C. There are more towns offering a lifestyle and career opportunities similar to Whistler. Most also offer the possibility of home ownership.

These people on the waiting list are the next generation of managers and leaders in Whistler. Keeping them here is fundamental to any notions of sustainability Whistler holds. Where, for instance, is the next generation of students going to come from to populate Whistler’s three schools?

While many of the current generation of managers and business owners have built homes in Pemberton – which may be part of the reason why more hasn’t been heard from the 400-long waiting list – the opportunities for housing in Pemberton are more limited than they were a few years ago. Regardless of the opportunities in Pemberton, Whistler’s stated goal is to house 75 per cent of its workforce locally.

This is not a debate that needs to go on forever. If you believe there is a finite amount of development in Whistler, then there is probably a finite number of jobs in Whistler. Through zoning and bed units we can figure out that number and build accordingly.

And, thanks to foresight and planning at municipal hall and the housing authority, the means are available to address the issue: a 300-acre land bank, $5 million in the WHA bank account and a report analyzing infill housing sites. The only thing missing is a little urgency and determination to get on with the job.

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