Skyrocketing home prices mean fewer rental suites available 

A new report from the Whistler Housing Authority outlines the problem and offers some solutions

High real estate values are eroding the supply of suites in Whistler homes, says a new report from the Whistler Housing Authority.

As the WHA moves into a new era its Overview 2002 report says the community must find "creative and effective ways to mitigate this process and to replace, within the private sector, what is lost."

The report will be introduced to council June 3 at the regularly scheduled meeting (7 p.m. council chambers at municipal hall).

Part of the housing erosion problem lies with the buyers of Whistler homes. Often they don’t have a mortgage and so don’t need rental income from tenants.

In other cases homes are re-developed and the suite is removed, taking important accommodation options out of the pool.

At the same time the WHA has used-up the housing fund in the construction of several employee restricted housing communities.

While the WHA housing units address the needs of many locals there will still be many who need to rent in the private sector as high real estate values and low wages put buying a home out of the reach of many.

"We are already past the time where anyone working here can buy a home at market value," said Tim Wake, general manager of the WHA.

"The time when locals bought single family homes is over."

That truth has put one of the founding beliefs of the WHA in peril – the need to have a large proportion of locals living in the community in which they work.

"That balance is in jeopardy," said Wake.

"So we have had to look at ways to mitigate that loss."

One way, said Wake, is to build more housing.

It’s been two years since the authority produced its last report. Since then Beaver Flats has joined residential housing neighbourhoods such as 19 Mile Creek, and Nesters Pond to provide quality affordable housing.

More recently the first and second phase of Bear Ridge, an Intrawest project in Spring Creek, sold out and will be ready for the new owners in the spring of 2003.

The third phase of this development is in the planning stages.

And it looks like the Callaghan Valley will be the site of the new community land bank, an area given by the province to the municipality for community development. This will also provide a future place for new employee-restricted housing.

All of this building is well and good said Wake but it isn’t the only answer, especially when you take into consideration the community’s goals on sustainability.

"We can’t simply build our way out," said Wake.

With that in mind several options are being looked at:

• Continuing to require employee restricted suites in new single family neighbourhoods, such as Spring Creek.

• Providing a density bonus so that those who provide a suite aren’t penalized on the square footage of their home.

• Zoning changes so that a buyer could subdivide a single-dwelling home into suites. That way a local could afford to buy a home because the rental income would help pay the mortgage.

• The WHA, with a commercial partner, could take over deteriorating residential complexes fix them up and turn them into employee restricted housing.

Requiring suites in new homes is a great idea, said Wake, but it has to be sold to the buyer of the home, many of whom don’t need the income.

One way to achieve that is to remind them that one of the main reasons they bought in the resort was because "it feels so good," said Wake.

"That dynamic cannot be understated," he said.

"The challenge is how do we instil in these new owners the idea that preserving the community is in their best interests.

"So the negotiation becomes about how we help owners get a great local tenant to help them out when it is not about the money."

As the WHA tackles this issue it is also moving into a new phase of its operations.

For the last several years, said Wake, the focus has been on building affordable housing.

But now the authority must manage, maintain and optimize the homes it has created as well as search for new sustainable options to continue to create housing for future locals.

"We are now shifting gears into the operating stage," said Wake.

In 1997 the WHA assumed the management of the $6.5 million Housing Fund from a charge levied on developers of commercial property.

Over the years that $6.5 million has been used to borrow more money and turned into $20 million in housing investment, all in long term rental properties.

The Overview 2002 reports states: "The rental revenue generated by the WHA housing projects covers the operating expenses, mortgage payments, administrative costs, and replacement reserves associated with each, thereby ensuring their long-term financial viability and sustainability."

There is no doubt the $20 million in housing investment would be worth at least twice as much on the open market.

And when these buildings are paid off in 20 to 25 years the community will have an enduring legacy of assets: the land and buildings, plus significant cash flow from net rental income to address the housing needs of the future.

The key will be managing the housing appropriately so those benefits will flow to the community.

Currently there are approximately 3,850 employee-restricted beds. They are in a variety of accommodations, ranging from dormitory-style short term rental units to single family subdivisions.

The goal is to have 4,800 by 2003.

Any new housing developments will have to be done in partnership with private companies, as there is no more housing fund money to buy land and develop it.

At the moment the possibility for locals to get employee-restricted housing is greater through resale of a home than it is from waiting for the next housing development.

Currently there are about three resales a month. All the resales are handled through the WHA.

"Up until now most people were thinking about the next project," said Wake.

"Now we have over 500 employee-restricted units that are owned, so the resales are increasing."

The units are sold through the waitlist system.

Prospective buyers must be employed or self-employed for a minimum of 20 hours a week for the last 12 months within the resort boundaries.

And as of July 1, 2002 all buyers must be pre-approved for a mortgage.

Owners can only sell to others on the wait list and the resale value of the unit is controlled by the WHA based on the Housing Price Index for Greater Vancouver.

The idea behind this is to keep the price low so the dream of owning a home can come true.

That dream means a lot.

Wake fondly recalls the day he got flowers to mark the one-year anniversary of a local couple’s move into their Beaver Flats home.

"That’s how much this can mean to people," said Wake, a passionate believer in creating and keeping community in the resort.

"We have an opportunity here to preserve what is a great community and my kids are growing up in it.

"I think this plays a part. There is some grief we have to put up with but there is so much satisfaction when just one person says, ‘Oh, you got me a home. Thanks.’"

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