housing crunch 

By Loreth Beswetherick Whistler is facing an employee housing crunch as it heads into peak season, with homeowners who usually rent to employees holding back inventory hoping to cash in on a potentially lucrative Millennium period rental market. Although Whistler-Blackcomb has an additional 150 staff housing beds in its inventory this winter and the mountains have doubled the number of houses they rent, they are still having trouble finding accommodation for about 250 employees currently waitlisted. The Whistler Housing Authority estimates there will be 1,000 more seasonal employees in the resort this year over last year and, although the local resident housing inventory has increased, accommodation traditionally provided though the private sector is proving scarce. "It appears we have allowed for the increase in employees expected but we are still short of inventory," said the housing authority’s Tim Wake. "We can only speculate why. Our inventory is still in place. Whistler-Blackcomb’s inventory is still all in place. Then we have the private sector which usually accommodates the majority of the rentals. One would only presume people are holding back on longer-term rentals in the hopes of getting a short-term rental over the Millennium. We certainly have had some individual stories that confirm that." Whistler-Blackcomb’s director of employee experience Kirby Brown agrees. Either that, or homeowners are planning to use the accommodation themselves, said Brown. Wake said housing authority surveys indicate 10,000 of the 12,000 employees in the resort last season were housed in Whistler, with the remaining 2,000 staying in either Squamish or Pemberton. He said the housing authority has about 3,000 beds under covenant, including both ownership and rental. That leaves 6,000 to 7,000 employees who either own accommodation, rent through the private sector or are housed by employers. "We don’t know the split on that," said Wake. Whistler-Blackcomb currently has beds for 1,200 employees. "That is 150 more than last year," said Brown. "We are finding even though we have more beds this year more of our staff are having a more difficult time finding alternative accommodation out there in the community. Returning staff who typically would have gone out on their own are landing on our doorstep again this year," said Brown. "They are the ones with knowledge of the valley and they are the ones having the difficulty finding places. It must be that more rental properties are being pulled off the market and the only reason for that would be that the intention is to rent them over the Millennium. That is the feedback we are getting." Wake said the demand for seasonal housing has peaked over the last few weeks. "We won’t rent our own units out on anything less that a one-year lease so the pressure is on people who are just here for the season. We have dozens walking in the door every day," said Wake. "All we can do is refer them to the rentals we do have listed, which are very few at this time of year, or refer them to the newspapers and bulletin boards." Wake said a number of tenants have come to the housing authority with stories of struggles with landlords who want to turf them out over the New Year’s period or charge exorbitant rent. He said the authority is informing tenants of their rights under the Landlord Tenants Act which prohibits this practice. "We are also hearing that a number of these units being offered for the Millennium are not actually rented yet," said Wake. "We would really hope if people are unable to secure a booking for their place for the Millennium in the next few weeks that they will consider a longer-term rental to an employee. We need to have a fully-staffed resort for the Millennium. We need to put a good foot forward as a resort and there are certainly a number of bona fide employees scrambling right now." Brown echoes the sentiment. He is asking that homeowners who haven’t yet rented their properties out short-term to reconsider their options. Whistler-Blackcomb has been advertising aggressively for properties since April, not only in Whistler but in the lower Mainland as well, said Brown. The mountains have about 60 houses on the books this year compared to around 30 last year, said Brown. "We have made extraordinary efforts compared to last year. We sent out mailers to all taxpayers in the community. We certainly would like a bunch more though." If all else fails the mountains will increase density at staff housing while employees who have to bunk up will see a reduction in their rent. Brown said it is feasible to house the extra 250 employees this way but it is not an opportune situation. "It becomes very crowded." Whistler-Blackcomb has already asked staff to volunteer sharing accommodation. In the meantime, Brown said the unhoused employees are crashing on staff housing couches anyway or are doubling up at local inns and hostels or with friends. Gord McKeever, who runs Rainbow Retreats Accommodations, a property management company, said there are still vacancies in the valley for the Millennium period, which is unusual for this time of year. Word from other operators is there is a 20 to 40 per cent vacancy rate. McKeever said there is also additional inventory on the market for that period. "These people may be in the market now but they may change their minds. In tough times the demand shrinks geographically towards the village and the base of the ski lifts." said McKeever. "The places that are long-term rentals are usually in that market because they are not slope side or the gourmet suite that is a very viable contender for short-term rental. So, your Village North property, you might just have a hard time booking it and certainly not for the outrageous rents you might be anticipating," said McKeever. "It’s a funny time of year but I think it is really important everybody remembers it is only one week." The market rates for the Millennium period are seeing well over a 50 per cent increase over premium season rates, but McKeever said that could still soften. Townhouses in the Creekside area are being advertised on the internet for around $1,150 per night in the peak period. One bedrooms are being offered for between $400 and $580 per night, while homes in places like Whistler Cay are asking $2,300 per night. "We think those people who haven’t rented their properties out yet for the Millennium probably aren’t going to have that much success so we are asking them to reconsider," said Brown. "I am making this pitch not just for us but for all the young folks out there. There are some fantastic valley employees and this is a community-wide issue."

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