Rental market likely to feel impact of 400 new WHA units 

Whistler may have "broken the back" of its housing problem this year but it remains to be seen how 400 new resident restricted units in Whistler will affect its notorious rental market.

When the new homeowners move into Cheakamus Crossing throughout next fall there will be a great "sucking sound" on the resident employee waitlist, according to one councillor.

And the clear majority of those new homeowners will be moving from rental units into their first homes.

It's the ramifications of that seismic shift, when more than 200 households move within months of each other, that has Councillor Eckhard Zeidler asking questions of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA).

"The supply and demand equation for rental housing is changing and we need to pay attention to it," said Zeidler after a recent WHA public workshop with council.

"I expect it will make the rental market more attractive for renters than it has been in a very long time."

The WHA is aware of it and is hoping to see an ease on the high-pressure rental market that has seen rents rise year over year.

The WHA tracks average rental rates in the resort from the back pages of both Pique Newsmagazine and the Question. This year the average listed studio was $1,414, up more than $300 over last year. A one-bedroom jumped from $1,275 last year to $1,500 on average this year. The trend continues in all sectors of the market.

What that means is renters are forced to share rooms and even beds in an attempt to make ends meet, creating shabby living conditions that often make national headlines.

"We should definitely see an ease on the rental market next summer, or once the Cheakamus Crossing units become available for possession," said WHA general manager Marla Zucht.

"We're hoping that the additional rental availability in the market will help ease some of the pressure for affordability."

And while it will likely mostly affect the landlords who try to gouge renters as demand ramps up prior to the winter season, there is the potential that a softer rental market could affect other, more reasonable landlords who use suites, or parts of their homes, as mortgage helpers. That could lead to other affordability challenges for Whistlerites.

Zeidler is optimistic that the changing rental market will impact those opportunistic landlords more than the reasonable ones, but he is keen to keep track of the impacts.

"I think it's something that we need to keep an eye on because that also speaks to affordability," he said.

This year 400 new units were added to the inventory. The WHA is including Cheakamus Crossing in that new inventory, though the owners will not move in until fall 2010, after the development is used as the athletes' village for both the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

The stars didn't just align for resident restricted housing in 2009, Zucht told council, they crashed together, bringing the entire inventory on at once.

In addition to Cheakamus Crossing, new resident-restricted units were built at Fitzsimmons Walk, which quickly sold out, and at Rainbow, which still has more than 60 units up for sale.

The addition of 400 new units has had a dramatic impact on the WHA waitlist, which at last year's count was 800 strong. That has been reduced to slightly less than 500 at this year's count.

More importantly, almost half of the people on that waitlist already own a WHA property and are on the list in an attempt to move into a different home.

That leaves 272 households who are on the list and looking to buy for the first time.

The biggest demand is for two-bedroom units and the majority of household waitlisters are pre-approved for $200,000 to $400,000 mortgages.

In response to Councillor's Zeidler's comments about the shifting nature of the waitlist and the social impacts it could have in the valley, WHA board member Brian Good said he believes there will still be enough people to fill beds.

"I think we're a long ways off still to getting to that point where there's more beds than people," Good told council at the workshop.

The numbers mean that Whistler is housing 77 per cent of its workforce, which is above the 75 per cent goal it set for itself.

"We've fixed the biggest hole in the boat," said WHA chair Michael Hutchison to council.

"There are perhaps some other holes."

The focus in the coming years will be less on building new inventory and more on seniors housing, potentially housing the lowest income members of the community and seasonal workers.

 

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