Living and working in Whistler not getting any easier 

Annual community monitoring highlights ongoing challenges

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TOBIAS C. VAN VEEN - The Mountains call Phil Bonham is a full-time working professional who prefers to live in his van and have only one job so he can enjoy the Whistler lifestyle.
  • PHOTO by tobias C. van veen
  • The Mountains call Phil Bonham is a full-time working professional who prefers to live in his van and have only one job so he can enjoy the Whistler lifestyle.

When Phil Bonham moved into his van in pursuit of the "Squamish dirtbag climbing bum lifestyle," it was only supposed to be for the summer.

"I didn't actually foresee it being a long-term thing," Bonham said in a recent phone call.

But when he moved back to Whistler the next winter, he found himself paying $800 for a room in a house — and not enjoying himself in the slightest.

"The place didn't feel like my own," he said.

"I kind of made the decision there to be like, 'I don't want to pay money for something I don't enjoy,' and from there I just decided to keep living in the van."

Bonham has now spent four summers and two winters in his van.

"It's really the only viable way that I've found of staying in Whistler that didn't involve crushing into a room with three other people and didn't involve working more jobs than necessary," he said.

"Like, there's guys that I work with... they work their full-time job and then they work three days a week doing another job, and they're not prosperous. It's just to get by."

But Bonham is not alone, and if recent trends are any indication, living and working in Whistler is not getting any easier.

While the just-released Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) corporate and community monitoring reports continue to show strong economic results, indicators around housing, affordability, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions and more are all starting to slide.

"The challenges that we're starting to see a little bit more recently seem to reflect around some of the foundation that makes us successful," said the Whistler Centre for Sustainability's community planning and monitoring specialist Dan Wilson, pointing to things like housing the majority of workers in-resort and affordability for residents.

Going back to the mid 1990s, Wilson played a large role in developing the Whistler2020 community performance monitoring program — a tool that has helped guide decision making in the resort ever since.

The most recent results show the community has been extremely successful in driving jobs, record visitation, and aspects of community life like access to recreation and arts and culture, he said.

But challenges around housing, affordability, transportation and waste are becoming more prevalent every year.

While Whistler's massive economic success in recent years — three million visitors a year and $1.53 billion contributed to the annual provincial GDP — may not be the only cause of current challenges, the two are certainly related, Wilson said.

"I think we're catching up to it now and as a community realizing the impact that this economic growth is having," he said.

"I think we're fortunate now that about a year and a half ago we started to jump on some of these issues that we saw popping up, which is great."

Whether through the mayor's task force on housing or the Transportation Advisory Group (TAG), the focus at municipal hall has certainly shifted to some of the big issues now facing Whistler, but how soon the indicators will shift back remains to be seen.

"We're definitely years away from a really big fix I think... but it's great that there's some real focus on that now, and (housing) is the most important thing from an affordability perspective," Wilson said.

The work of the TAG will likely prove fruitful in more ways than one, too, addressing both mobility and greenhouse gas emission challenges.

"We're starting on those, and there seems to be some good momentum, though I think we're a couple years away from the pressure being completely released on those particular issues," Wilson said.

In the 2017 Community Life Survey (CLS) — part of the community's overall monitoring program and one of the key factors that informs corporate indicators — permanent resident satisfaction dropped from 2015 numbers in several areas, including access to local parks, atmosphere and ambiance in the village and ability to get around by vehicle and on Highway 99, to name just a few (though several areas stayed on par or improved, like in the case of access to arts and culture opportunities. The 2015 results were also among the highest ever seen in the survey, with 2017 numbers falling back down to normal in some cases. The full survey results can be found at www.whistler.ca/stay-connected/surveys).

Seasonal residents — arguably the lifeblood of the resort — were included in the CLS for the first time in a decade, with satisfaction levels noticeably lower than permanent residents across the board.

As VP of employee experience for Whistler Blackcomb (WB), Joel Chevalier has spent the last decade working with many of the seasonal residents in town (of which WB employs about 3,300), and said they are generally pretty happy.

"That statement is not to discount the challenge of being seasonal and living and surviving in this town," he said. "I mean as desirable as it is to live here, as long as it's a desirable place to visit it's going to be an expensive place to live, and there are challenges around seasonal employees."

Things like wages, affordability and housing add to the challenges for seasonals, but WB tries to ease the burden by offering staff housing and helping employees transition from winter to summer and back again, Chevalier said.

Employees also start to get moved onto the company's benefits program towards the end of their second year.

Despite the lagging indicators in some areas, the RMOW is optimistic the trends will swing back — it's just a matter of when.

"The short answer is yes, I am very hopeful that the initiatives we're taking will positively impact the challenges around transportation and housing that we are seeing identified in the community survey," said CAO Mike Furey, adding that while movement is being made on several fronts, it's difficult to say when that might be reflected in the indicators.

"While I think we've definitely seen some slips in certain community indicators, I think in a number of the areas where we did benchmark against other communities we remained either above, or at a minimum at par with those other communities in terms of the indicators."

"But that said, yeah, two of our main priorities this year are transportation and housing, and we're putting a lot of resources... a lot of my focus and council's focus is trying to make those change, so we're hopeful to see some of those trends go in a more positive direction in future surveys."

The corporate plan can be found online at www.whistler.ca/municipal-government/strategies-and-plans/corporate-plan.


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