Back to the future: affordable housing


With the announcement last week that Whistler will get a greater portion of the hotel tax – an extra $6 million annually, based on current hotel tax projections – and much of the 300-acre land bank committed to the athletes village site in the lower Cheakamus, most of the Olympic legacies that were first announced in 2002 have finally become reality. Almost.

The legislation enabling the hotel tax transfer still has to be passed by the legislature, which doesn’t sit again until the fall. And title to the land bank will presumably be transferred to Whistler after the business plan for the athletes village is approved by Victoria in the next couple of weeks.

The third Olympic legacy, the expansion of municipal boundaries, hasn’t been mentioned for some time and appears to have been dropped, presumably because the issue would further complicate already complex negotiations with First Nations.

But three and a half years after Mayor O’Reilly announced he was comfortable Whistler has two out of three parts of the Olympic legacy. More or less.

It is time for Whistler to move on, to take care of its own future. By the end of the month the present council and administration will have all the tools they are going to get to address the issues that face Whistler. And because of the decisions and non-decisions by previous councils, they have one hell of a job. For example…

According to a report released last week by go2, the B.C. tourism industry’s human resources arm, labour shortages for Sea to Sky businesses will get worse over the next decade. Currently, tourism operators in the corridor need to attract 3,500 workers from outside the region every year. Attracting those workers is getting more difficult for all kinds of reasons; the cost of living here being one of the key ones.

But an additional 2,500 jobs in accommodation, food and beverage services, recreation and retail trade are expected to be created in the corridor over the next decade. That’s 6,000 tourism-related jobs, the majority in Whistler, that will need to be filled annually by 2016.

Could we, should we, have anticipated this?

The black hole in northern Alberta that is sucking up labour and fueling that province’s white-hot economy may not have shown up on the crystal ball when municipal planners began looking into the future a few years ago. But North America’s aging demographics have been studied and written about for decades. The provincial government’s strategy to encourage resort development and tourism across B.C. – and therefore create more competition for resort tourism labour – was announced years ago. The Olympics have been on Whistler’s agenda for at least eight years. Commercial development in Whistler has been carefully monitored by municipal hall from Whistler’s earliest days. And a formula that ties labour requirements to commercial development has been around for several years.

If those tea leaves didn’t point to labour concerns a September 2002 report to council by the Whistler Housing Authority stated that more and more employees were choosing to live outside of Whistler because of "the unavailability of affordable housing." A 2002 story in Pique Newsmagazine quoted a local businessman as saying: "The kids aren’t coming here any more because it’s not a fun place to live." Councillor Ken Melamed said: "What is going to keep the town healthy is we are going to have to create opportunity for new people to come to town."

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said during the 2002 election campaign that with the Olympic legacy land bank secured Whistler would have "options within options" for affordable housing.

And exactly zero affordable housing was built between 2002 and 2005.

The quagmire was so deep that in late 2004 the municipality hired Steve Bayly as a "housing expediter." In a month and a half he had an agreement in principle for the Rainbow housing project.

Rainbow has had its problems since then, and there are questions now about how affordable it will be. But this highlights how difficult it can be to deliver on something that is so fundamental to the success of the community and the tourism business. It demands the full attention of municipal hall.

The go2 report shows how tight the labour supply is going to get. That too reinforces how important affordable housing is to Whistler. It also brings to mind how deep in the hole we have fallen in the last few years. While Whistler has talked about affordability and affordable housing forever, in recent years it hasn’t delivered.

So now that the financial tools saga has been put to rest and the Olympic legacies determined the current council and administration need to concentrate on producing results – in a timely manner – in areas that are crucial to the welfare of all Whistler, like housing and affordability.

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