Editorial 

Affordable housing key to making Whistler work

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It’s been sitting there in the corner for nearly eight years, not making much noise but growing and becoming more and more conspicuous. Finally, last month, the 600-pound gorilla in the room could no longer be ignored. The owners of 16 homes in the 23-lot Barnfield subdivision filed suit against the municipality and Whistler Housing Authority, challenging the covenant that restricts the resale price of their homes.

Because it’s now in lawyers’ hands, neither side can say very much about the matter but lots of other people in Whistler have opinions, and most of them are not flattering. This is one of the first casualties of this suit: the estimation of a group of hardworking, long-time Whistler residents – the kind of people housing advocates point out Whistler is losing when anyone asks why more affordable housing needs to be built – has dropped in many people’s minds. There were no public displays of jealousy or disapproval when these people were presented with the opportunity to build their homes in Barnfield. On the contrary, there was general support and congratulations when their names were drawn in a housing lottery. But some of that support is evaporating with the lawsuit.

The timing of the Barnfield suit is particularly unfortunate. Residents in another affordable housing project, Eva Lake Village, are facing huge bills to shore up sinking buildings. Some Eva Lake condo owners may lose their homes because they can’t afford the unexpected costs, although the municipality is working quietly to find a solution.

So Whistler is left with one group of affordable housing residents suing the municipality because the value of their fine properties are kept artificially low, while another group is suing because the value of their properties has plunged with the shifting of a couple of foundations. It’s not the sort of momentum that is going to help future housing projects, such as the Rainbow lands proposal.

It should be noted that nearly all of Whistler’s affordable housing projects have been done without assistance from senior levels of government. That is, they have been community-driven projects. Private developers were involved in most of them but in response to, or at the insistence of, the municipality and the community. Affordable housing, or social housing as it’s called in most other towns, is a collective, community response to a need. In Whistler it’s taken a long time to build general consensus of that need. The public hearing for the 19 Mile Creek affordable housing project comes to mind. Through several hours of mostly negative comments, including allusions to arsonists and pedophiles who could potentially reside in the 19 Mile Creek project, the council of the day listened to the objections of a few and then voted in the best interests of the community and approved the project.

The point here is that every affordable housing project in Whistler has faced opposition, each has required some hard work, sacrifices and concessions in order to become a reality, and every one was done in order to make the community stronger.

Before the Barnfield Farm subdivision came along there was a development proposal for the property known as the Freestyle Lands project. A developer was going to build a training centre for the freestyle ski team on Blackcomb in exchange for zoning that would have allowed several large homes in the Barnfield area. That proposal was defeated, largely because the community benefits were seen to be insufficient.

A couple of years later Steve Bayly bought the property and proposed the Barnfield subdivision: 23 lots at below market value available only to Whistler residents. The lottery winners were given the opportunity to build their own homes and put some sweat equity into their properties. The project was financed by the sale of a few larger market value lots on adjacent property.

Presumably Bayly made some money on the project, but he could have made more money in other development opportunities. He gave up those opportunities, and put up with neighbours’ gripes, to help keep Whistler residents in the community.

The Barnfield residents who launched the lawsuit say that the covenant on their properties restricting the rate of appreciation is prohibitive. A lot and home that cost $400,000 in 1997 is today worth only $440,000. That’s not much appreciation, and if one of these properties were to come on the market for that price today it would be gone in an instant.

But everyone knew the formula going in. As a financial investment, affordable housing was never intended to provide a good return. The covenant is there to keep homes "affordable" in perpetuity, not just for the first owners. Talks aimed at adjusting the formula or finding some other solution to the homeowners’ concerns have been fruitless. So the matter is now in lawyers’ hands.

The real dilemma, from Whistler’s perspective, is the Barnfield people may win in court. If the covenant is found to be vague and unenforceable, the impact that could have on some existing and future affordable housing projects in Whistler is scary.

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