Who’s in charge of affordable housing?

There’s something about the Whistler Housing Authority that always seems to stick in the craw of Whistler councils, but like many annoyances no one seems to be able to put their finger on the source of aggravation.

The housing authority was created in the fall of 1997 after the affordable housing fund had swelled to $6 million and how to spend it became the issue of the 1996 municipal election. The new council resisted the temptation to spend the money and build housing itself. Instead, council commissioned a report by CitySpaces Consulting Ltd., which found that Whistler’s housing needs were worse than anyone imagined. The report concluded: "The problem is structural, not cyclical – it’s not a matter of riding out the cycle. Unless the situation changes dramatically, the private market will not meet the housing needs of most local working people in an affordable way."

One of the key recommendations of the report was the establishment of a housing corporation, at arm’s length from the municipality, to deliver affordable housing. Rick Staehli, who had extensive experience in building affordable housing through provincial programs, was hired as general manager in the spring of 1998 and given a mandate to get some housing built with the $6 million. Staehli was successful, but from the start he had made it clear he wasn’t looking for a career at the WHA; his expertise was building and when the money was gone he would move on.

In one of his final reports to council, in 2001, Staehli warned that even though the affordable housing situation was improved – particularly for seasonal workers – the town was in danger of dropping below its stated goal of housing 80 per cent of its workforce in Whistler. That didn’t seem to faze the majority of the council of the day. In fact, council turned down private sector proposals for affordable housing that the WHA had believed were worthwhile projects.

But in the last couple of years the new goal of maintaining 75 per cent of employees in Whistler has been reaffirmed by council as it worked its way through the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan. With seasonal workers’ needs largely addressed, it is the permanent employees who now need to be considered. Permanent, quality housing is what is needed for people to make long-term plans in Whistler.

But the role of the WHA seems to have become murkier as the issue has become more defined. About 18 months ago a committee came up with a list of non-cost housing initiatives that were presented to council. Last spring a report to council inventoried 61 private and Crown land sites that could be suitable for resident housing. Currently, the municipality is doing long-range planning to determine future needs and demand for affordable housing, although as administrator Jim Godfrey told council last week, the municipality has been unable to hire a housing planner.

Meanwhile, the housing authority sold the units in its Nordic Court housing project this summer and generated about $5 million to put toward new housing projects. This fall the WHA’s list of people approved for mortgages and wanting to purchase affordable housing topped 400 for the first time.

At the political level, Councillor Kristi Wells was removed by Mayor Hugh O’Reilly as chair of the WHA board in April. Councillor Nick Davies took over as chair and Councillor Gord McKeever was added to the board. The move was apparently made to "mix things up" half way through council’s term, although it was well known that Wells had upset some other council members with some of her actions, including last year’s call for a governance review.

This week, Davies’s motion to investigate new employee housing opportunities on infill sites rankled other council members, who thought the WHA board should have endorsed the idea first. However, the motion was supported unanimously.

So what is the role of the WHA? Davies said last week, "It’s not the role of the housing authority to go out and chase opportunities," although clearly it was when Staehli was general manager. And as Godfrey said, the municipality can’t find a housing planner.

A governance review of the WHA, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year, may clarify the situation. That would be welcome news, because all the other pieces – including Whistler’s ace in the hole, the 300 acre land bank – are in place to meet Whistler’s housing needs.

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