Resident housing task force gets down to work 

Group to focus on non-cost housing initiatives

Even if the municipality’s new housing task force can stop 10 or 20 rental suites from disappearing this year, their work will not have been in vain, according Councillor Kristi Wells, chair of the task force.

At last Friday’s meeting in municipal hall, the 11-member task force met for the first of four sessions, which involve examining a list of non-cost resident housing initiatives recently developed by municipal staff and the Whistler Housing Authority.

These initiatives are designed to provide incentives for homeowners to create or retain resident suites and stem the leakage of resident market housing.

"We’d like to do whatever we can to stop this drain of existing stock," said longtime resident Steve Bayley who has been involved with the Whistler Housing Authority since its inception.

"We’d be lucky if we could keep up to what we’re losing, quite frankly."

And so the municipality has embraced the non-cost initiatives as just one way of stopping the erosion of its resident housing.

Although some members of the task force wanted to broaden the topics of discussion, Wells was firm in the focus of the task force around the non-cost initiatives.

Bob MacPherson, interim general manager of planning and development services at the RMOW, gave the group a run-down on the initiatives that went before council in December.

"We’re trying to develop a smorgasbord here so that people have options," he said.

"We’re testing new ideas."

The task force debated the merits of the first two initiatives at last Friday’s meeting.

The first idea, which is to allow homeowners to add 600 square feet to their homes if they create a restricted employee suite, came under attack by some task force members. This bonus density would only be allowed in homes of a certain size, to protect the character of the neighbourhoods.

Former Whistler mayor and current real estate agent Drew Meredith said that this proposal is not economically viable because the suite most likely would not pay for itself.

"I’m saying the market won’t respond to this," he said, adding that the initiatives must create a "win-win" situation both for the homeowner and the renter.

If the municipality wants homeowners to create a suite in their home, there has to be a real incentive there.

There was some discussion around the fact that if homeowners can add an extra 600 square feet to their homes, they would most likely do everything they can to beat the system and change that space into a media room, rather than a resident suite.

Another member of the task force, Shannon Byrne, of Paradata, was interested in finding out how many homes in Whistler could actually qualify to add on the 600 square foot bonus density and still remain at the required 0.35 FSR (a house can occupy no more than 35 per cent of the lot).

No quantifiable answer was immediately available.

But the second initiative received a much more positive response. This would allow homeowners to build detached garages with a resident suite located above. Currently, suites must be within the main home and therefore cannot be above a detached garage.

"If you can help me get a garage that I can’t have now, that’s an incentive," said Meredith, illustrating the point of a win-win situation.

The task force’s discussion is just part of a series of initiatives to deal with the housing crunch in Whistler.

Currently two-thirds of the resident workforce (roughly 7,000 residents) live in market housing. But there are forces at work, which are causing the continuous depletion of that stock.

For example, second homeowners are buying houses once rented to residents and choosing not to rent. There has also been an increase in "tear-down" activity, where smaller resident homes are replaced by larger homes without suites.

And Whistler residents are taking advantage of high property values and "cashing out." But the value of land makes it unlikely that another employee or resident can buy that home.

Ten years ago there were roughly 75 secondary suites built annually in Whistler homes. In the last three years there has been less than 20 built per year.

"The market is not motivated the way it once was to deliver resident housing," said MacPherson.

The non-cost initiatives are an attempt to change market conditions slightly and create incentives for resident housing, yet not require capital funds.

Additional non-cost initiatives will be discussed at future task force meetings.

The task force will be reporting back to council at the Monday, Feb. 17 meeting. The goal is to have some of the initiatives in place before construction season begins in the spring.

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