The case for YIMBYs 

Whistler's needs should win out

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - DECISION TIME Whistler has a big decision to make when it comes to how it wishes to grow
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  • DECISION TIME Whistler has a big decision to make when it comes to how it wishes to grow

A mountain town struggled for years with housing. With rising rents, renovictions, and sky-rocketing housing prices, long-term locals were forced to leave, while young people crammed into expensive shared rooms.

Like much of North America, the town had embraced the single-family ethos, building neighbourhoods with sprawling lots and large homes, many of which sat empty much of the year or were rented out to wealthy tourists.

Soon local businesses started to feel the pinch. Some were forced to shutter for long stretches, unable to retain staff because of the housing crisis.

But one day, a developer who owned one of the largest, most central of the single-family lots presented the town's leaders with an offer: "Change your zoning," he pleaded. "Allow me to build up — not out — and in exchange, I'll agree to rent to locals."

Recognizing the opportunity, the leaders re-zoned the property, allowing the developer to build a high-density development, transforming a sleepy residential enclave into a modern residential hub. The development, in turn, came to represent an important turning point for the town, the point where it resolved to build up — not out.

Whister council will soon decide if it wishes to embark down such a path. A developer, Robert Velenosi, wants to transform an empty one-hectare lot in Nordic Estates into a 74-unit housing complex. The mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments would provide housing for management-level staff of local businesses, allowing them to attract and retain workers. The property now has six bed units allocated to it; if greenlit, that allotment would increase dramatically, to 222.

The proposal, still in its earliest stages, reportedly already has the support of several large Whistler employers.

But the neighbourhood (and a prominent Pique columnist) appear diametrically opposed. Granted, there are some major issues that need to be looked at, particularly when it comes to addressing the increased traffic and just how affordable the units will be. (Issues that can presumably be ironed out in negotiations.)

But the idea that underlies the opposition, that a high-density development is unacceptable in a residential neighbourhood, will be difficult to overcome. According to one social media commentator, the development would be "like dropping a shopping mall in the Lost Lake parking lot" and is opposed by 100 per cent of the surrounding homeowners. Incensed by what they feel is a threat to their most valuable asset, they are sure to mount an organized and loud campaign against it.

But will their opposition win out against the needs of the larger community?

Unfortunately, probably. Known as NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard), they couch their argument in wholesome, relatable arguments about "neighbourhood character." Their preternatural ability to quash high-density development projects is well known.

There is, however, a growing countervailing force. Fed up with the single-family home ethos that's robbed cities of much-need housing, the YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard) have emerged as unlikely allies of developers. Largely made up of millennials — who on average make less than their parents, carry more debt, and have less assets — YIMBYs have framed their unlikely support for high-density development projects as a social justice issue, arguing that housing is a fundamental human right.

"It used to be, 'We need to charge developers for everything, we need to stop development,'" said Sara Maxana, a leader in the YIMBY movement, in a Globe and Mail article. "But now we're saying when we put up more barriers, that decreases supply and the cost of housing goes up. So we need to embrace it, but shape it."

In Oakland, YIMBY organizers helped win approval for a 24-storey housing project, and in Seattle, activists pushed the city to "upzone" in certain neighbourhoods, allowing higher-density buildings.

The future of Whistler is up, not out. An eco-friendly, high-density ethos must guide development if the community wants the people who work here to be able to live here. But to increase density, council will need to privilege the goals of the community over a handful of angry homeowners. To create housing for young professionals in the prime years of their working careers simply makes sense, from both an ethical and economic standpoint. But to do so, council needs support and encouragement from the silent (and poorly-housed) majority.

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