Hurdles to affordable housing 

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Failure is the price of success. No one succeeds all the time and no one succeeds without failing occasionally along the way. The best we can hope for is we learn from our failures.

On the road to meeting the goal of housing 75 per cent of its workforce in affordable, resident-restricted housing, Whistler, the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), its predecessor the Whistler Valley Housing Society (WVHS) and others coming before even them, had some great successes and notable failures. The question currently facing mayor and council and the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing is whether the lessons of those failures have been learned or whether we're about to repeat the biggest mistake that doomed previous efforts to failure, partial or total.

That mistake is affordability, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

Whistler Cay and Tapley's Farm — both pre-dating WHA and WVHS — began life as resident-restricted, affordable housing. In both cases, the early covenants put in place to try and meet those two important goals were challenged and the covenants designed to keep those properties affordable failed. Neither development is remotely affordable to any but the most financially well-off valley employees.

One of WHA's early developments, Barnfield, highlighted two important failures. The first was the lottery system used to select lucky residents who got a chance to purchase lots. The lottery was replaced first by a modified points system that prioritized local residents on a waitlist taking into consideration length of time in the community, years of Whistler employment, size of family and number of dependents, etc. That lasted three months and was eventually replaced by the current first-come, first-served waitlist.

The larger failure Barnfield brought home was the importance of price restrictions. After all, affordable housing isn't very valuable if it's only affordable to the first purchaser. At Barnfield, lucky lottery winners were able to build their own homes on the lots they'd purchased. It was believed they'd build modest homes, which would be affordable to future purchasers. The protocol to determine the "value" of those homes, for the purpose of determining future sales price, proved to be a largely unworkable, highly contentious formula based on cost to build.

There are still, all these years later, unresolved issues regarding that initial determination of value for some Barnfield owners. As a result, that model was never followed again and no one has ever been able to build their own WHA, resident-restricted housing unit since. And, as a result, houses in Barnfield mostly sell at an unaffordable price.

In hindsight — and hindsight is the tool we use to learn from our failures — it would have been simpler and more likely successful if WHA had allowed Barnfield lottery winners to build whatever they wanted... with the understanding its initial value would be capped at X dollars per square foot. No argument over value used to determine future resale price; problem solved.

And that's the trap I fear we're about to step into again with the infill strategy outlined in big strokes — and little detail — in the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing report.

The report recommends an infill strategy that would allow homeowners who have a large enough lot to build resident-restricted housing in one of three ways: creating suites within, attached or stand-alone; duplexing a single-family lot; and/or dividing a big enough lot, creating a new title, and building another home on the new lot.

What they foresee accomplishing with this strategy is the creation of 50 new employee homes, addressing the loss of market homes to such things as renoviction or merging lots, like the monstrosity on Alta Lake, and allowing existing homeowners "stay-in" options to help manage rising costs of ownership.

Whether this works or not — and don't imagine nimbyism isn't alive and well in Whistler's neighbourhoods — is irrelevant. The simple fact is if there is not a restriction on the value, the initial cost of the housing created, in other words if it's not affordable, it will do nothing to address the lack of affordable housing in Whistler.

What it will do is provide a windfall and a municipally created retirement plan for anyone who currently owns market housing. As a stay-in strategy, that works. As a strategy to create affordable, resident-restricted housing, it sucks.

The stay-in strategy is designed to assist people who are house-rich and cash-poor. Many of those people I consider friends. They've been here a long time and got into market housing when it was less stratospheric. Regardless of when they got in though, they also sacrificed to get in and stay in and they've contributed substantially to the success of Whistler.

Having said that, there are a number of options open to them to stay-in their homes, including deferring property taxes under the provincial program, taking out reverse mortgages, taking in tenants and, while not staying in, selling their market home and downsizing.

But allowing anyone — homeowner, property owner or developer — to build "employee" housing that's unaffordable to future purchasers is a recipe for disaster and a gift to those homeowner developers. After all, any employee housing created under the infill program is going to require bed units. When the rezoning debate was raging over the Zen property's University of Whistler plan, a figure of $90,000 was tossed around as an approximation of the value of a bed unit. Even using that number, which is several years old, the most modest studio suite would be "gifted" with a $180,000 subsidy compliments of the municipality. For it to be subsequently unaffordable to future employees would be unthinkable.

Going back to one of their early projects, Millar's Ridge, WHA promised purchasers, "a nest... not a nest egg." The premise was purchasers would receive secure housing at below market prices and a modest return on their investment — an investment in the social infrastructure of Whistler. In return, they understood there was a restriction on resale price and they'd be selling to someone on the waitlist.

People who rent housing from WHA get secure housing at a reasonable price, which is why anyone who owns a WHA house and wants to rent a room does so under restrictions on rent rates.

Those trade-offs have worked pretty well. What hasn't worked well is where that model has been compromised, such as market/restricted hybrids like Solana and the apartments in Rainbow, Barnfield and the early projects that, for all practical purposes are now market housing.

So if the Task Force and municipal council believe they can overcome the various hurdles to getting infill housing built, more power to ya. But if you don't restrict any infill by placing a value cap on it, you're not helping solve the problem... unless you consider the problem to be finding a way to fund the retirement of market homeowners.

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