Maxed out 

Home suite home

By G.D. Maxwell

Maybe it’s silly to get swept up in local politics at a time like this. Maybe the angst of a privileged playground pales in comparison to the ravings of a madman intent on unleashing the dogs of war against any nation bold enough to challenge his world view.

Or maybe it’s more important than ever. Maybe there’s comfort in turning our focus toward those things we might actually influence and shaping our little corner of the world, cosseting a fairyland in a sea of rage, preserving what makes us, well, us as opposed to not us.

So maybe a concern with local politics amounts to nothing more than whistling past the graveyard. Or maybe it represents the only true hope for our future. Either way, the race is afoot and it’s shaping up to be an important one. Whistler is at a crossroads.

Whistler has a chance to fulfil its destiny and become an enclave of wealthy, absentee homeowners – the dark, empty house scenario – or it has a chance to stave off what may be that inevitable end for a few more years or decades and continue to be a vibrant resort community peopled by a diverse blend of local worker bees, weekenders and tourists. Whistler! It’s your Choice.

The usual suspects – our current slate of councillors and two-term mayor –all seem to be inclined to run again. They will be challenged by some people who’ve challenged them before and a new crop of fresh-faced suckers. The more, the merrier. The more, the better. Now is the time for change. The status quo ain’t gonna cut it if your choice for the future embraces the second option outlined above.

The current, epic consultancy underway to decide our future is still debating the nuances of the many criteria of a successful resort community. One criteria still alive and kicking involves having a shared understanding of the spirit of the community. Here’s mine.

Whistler has been, and should strive mightily to stay, a living, breathing community of real people. People who get up each morning and go to work or go play or, hopefully, both. It ought to be a beacon for ski bum wannabes, young kids who want to take a year or two off and slide their brains out, older kids who want to drop out of one rat race and start running with a different breed of rats, kids who’ve grown or are growing older here wondering where the time’s gone, rich kids, not so rich kids, kids who barely make it from paycheque to paycheque, kids who want to make their mark in the world of hospitality, kids who want to stand on the podium some day.

Whistler ought to be a town of vibrant neighbourhoods filled with a diverse mix of those kids, some of whom are lucky enough or in debt enough to own a home, many of whom rent suites in homes, some of whom live in "managed" housing and a whack of whom live in employee housing.

The most crucial element of our "healthy" resort is the energy that mix brings to the destination tourist experience. You see, we live our guests’ dream. For a week or two, they want to share in it, they want to be us. Our mountains are a bit better than a lot of other resorts, our cute pedestrian village is more cozy. But the energy of our people is what defines the Whistler experience. It’s our competitive advantage. We act like we have a stake in this town because we live in this town. Threaten that and you threaten our success.

One of the tricks we need to master is how to keep our neighbourhoods from sliding headlong into the dark, empty scenario. One way to fail miserably at this trick is to keep on doing what we’ve been doing… nothing. Every time we let someone walk into an existing neighbourhood, plop down a wad of dough, bring in a bulldozer and raze a house and suite only to build their "dream" home, sans suite, we’re letting them destroy our shared vision. They’re not buying into our community – they’re destroying it. They have their own dream and it ain’t the same one we’re trying to share and build.

So how do we stop them?

Make ’em build a suite to replace the one they’ve destroyed. Right there on the same spot. Make ’em rent it to a worker bee. Or make ’em let the housing authority do it if they can’t seem to find the time themselves. No wiggle room. No cash in lieu. No exceptions.

Some would say that’s draconian. Some would say it’s downright commie. Some would say it’s tramping on property rights.

Bullshit.

The rights being tramped on are our rights, as a community, to protect the very thing that’s made us successful and will keep us successful in the future. They’re being tramped on by people who don’t want to share the vision with us. They’re being tramped on by people who would, by and large, be just as happy investing their money in any town they thought they’d earn a decent return in, destination resort or not.

By demanding they replace the suite they’ve destroyed, we’re only keeping them from taking our community apart. We’re ensuring our vibrant neighbourhoods stay that way and we’re forestalling what many would say is the inevitable ghettoization of our workforce. If they don’t want to do that, if they don’t want to buy into the vision, if they don’t want to be part of keeping us successful, screw ’em. Let ’em invest their money somewhere else or wait for the stock markets to come back.

This goal can be reached through zoning. No new sexy financial "tools" are needed. What’s needed is vision and backbone. We’ve got smart enough boys and girls at the muni to work out the details. What we need is smarter elected boys and girls with the political will to fight the good fight.

What we don’t need, at least not right away, is the Callaghan as a safety valve, as an outpost where we can mask this problem through growth, where we can create affordable neighbourhoods for employees and abandon our existing neighbourhoods to the investors. We need the Callaghan, but we need to protect our old neighbourhoods too.

Personally, I don’t think this goes far enough. I believe every house built or rebuilt in this valley ought to have a suite. But I don’t think that’s doable. I think protecting the ones we have is. We wouldn’t be putting a gun to anyone’s head and making them build something they didn’t want, we’d be keeping them from destroying something important to us.

I think most of you agree with me. I think you need to let everyone who’s running for council or mayor know it. I think you ought to demand it.

It’s not the only thing we should do to start dealing with affordability instead of just talking about it, but it’s my litmus test. Is it yours?

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