A reasonable, temporary solution

While officials struggle with how to balance the almost limitless services and projects expected from the municipality in the period leading up to the 2010 Olympics with the finite financial resources that are available, a more familiar, more mundane problem is gathering momentum.

Whistler has “homeless” people. This doesn’t come as news to anyone who has ever entertained a couch surfer. And people living in vans or tents at this time of year while they search for a more substantial place to call home is not uncommon. But Whistler has now joined the list of world-class cities that see people bed down for the night in sleeping bags on covered porches, in alcoves and underground garages. Like the frost starting to grow at the edges of windows, they’re on the periphery — you won’t find them sleeping in Village Square or Marketplace; just another indication that despite a good plan for more resident and seasonal housing after 2010 the housing situation up to 2010 is getting desperate.

Whether the sight of someone bundled up for the night in a sleeping bag in a public space indicates Whistler’s desperate housing situation has reached a new threshold is for individuals to decide. The situation will likely go away if it’s ignored long enough; when winter comes Whistler’s virtues are unlikely to be enough to compensate for sleeping on cold concrete night after night.

The struggle to find a place to live at this time of year is the oldest, most repeated story in every mountain resort town. Anyone who has lived in such a town more than a couple of years is sick to death of the story. No town — or city — has ever “solved” the problem completely, in part because it is an issue that involves economics, social dynamics, weather and the whims of human nature and therefore probably defies solution.

But it is also an issue that is ignored at our own peril. For several reasons — as outlined by Brian Good, manager of Whistler-Blackcomb’s staff housing, a couple of good winters in a row, growing expectations about the Olympics, the closure of one Whistler Housing Authority building this fall due to a flood and a number of beds occupied by construction crews — the housing situation this winter is tighter than it has been in some time. But it has been tough all year. There was demand for housing last February and much less became available in the spring, a time of year when rental housing usually opens up.

The build up to the Olympic year is undoubtedly having an impact. The demand for housing from construction companies is likely to grow again next winter, as major construction projects continue.

After the Games the big plan kicks in, with new housing for permanent and seasonal employees in the athletes’ village. There may also be some movement on the Rainbow project by then.

But getting from today through the spring of 2010 requires some additional housing, particularly for seasonal workers. This is not a problem to dump on the municipality in the hope it can come up with a solution, it is an issue for the whole community. And part of the community has been working on it.

A Whistler Chamber of Commerce task force has been brainstorming solutions for many months now. Their first proposal, the H.O.M.E. matching program, has yet to turn up a match. However, the idea of a temporary “trailer camp” on the former highways works yard opposite Alta Vista shows more promise — for next winter.

The important term here is “temporary”. The land is now in the hands of the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations, part of the 300 acres they received in return for supporting the Olympics. The First Nations have identified other parcels in their package, above Rainbow and at Function Junction, as priorities for development, so the works yard is likely to remain undeveloped for a while. Which means the site is available for temporary use.

A Vancouver company that builds mobile accommodation for the mining and oil and gas industries has evaluated the site and found it suitable. Once an estimate for the buildings comes in, Whistler businesses will be asked to finance the project. All the municipality is being asked for is temporary rezoning to allow the accommodation through to the summer of 2010.

Temporary trailer camps are not a long-term solution to Whistler’s housing needs, and that’s one reason why previous proposals for trailer camps have been turned down. But all indications are the housing situation is going to get worse before it gets better following the Olympics. The trailer camp proposal would be, in the words of committee member Tom Horler, “business taking care of a business problem.” It may also be taking care of a problem on the periphery.

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