WHA, chamber say surveys confirm need for housing 

Whistler council’s decision to turn thumbs down on the Whistler Three employee/market housing project continues to mystify the Whistler Housing Authority and members of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.

At the heart of the puzzle is council and municipal staff’s suggestion that restricted rental housing is not needed. The Whistler Housing Authority is incredulous.

"We’ve done employer surveys each of the last three years," says Tim Wake, housing administrator. "The chamber of commerce has done employer surveys the last two years. We’ve done a six month focus study, with community stakeholders as the focus group. And we have anecdotal evidence from businesses.

"In three and a half years of doing this, at no time was it expressed to us we’ve met the need for rental housing or we have no need for rental housing."

The housing authority believes there is a need for at least 600 rental beds right now, and that the numbers are going to grow as market forces lead to the tearing down of older houses and the rental suites in those houses are not replaced. Surveys this past winter showed Whistler businesses were short more than 600 employees.

The Whistler Three project proposed by Tim Regan of Vision Pacific, involved building 148 employee restricted rental townhomes at the 20 acre Cheakamus North site, between Millar’s Pond and Spring Creek. A small commercial development was included in the proposal, above which 42 rental rooms would be built. This employee housing portion of the project would be financed by two developments of estate lots that would allow 5,000 square foot homes. The proposal included seven estate lots in an area of Whistler Cay known as The Grove, and 11 estate lots in White Gold, known as Lost Lake Estates. The project required rezoning of all three sites and 66 bed units, which were expected to come from the British Columbia Assets and Land Corporation’s floating inventory.

The project was before council April 30 to see if there was enough support to send it to a public information meeting. There wasn’t.

Most council members cited environmental concerns, financial risks and other options available for employee housing – as well as questioning how much more employee housing is needed – in deciding not to send the project to a public information meeting.

"This is a very difficult site to build employee housing on. They’re spending a lot on services. They’ve tried hard but I think they’re working on the wrong place," Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said at the council meeting.

But as Wake points out, employee housing on the Cheakamus North site is not a new idea. In 1996 Glacier Creek Development Corp. proposed 1,100 employee beds in 240 townhouses on the Cheakamus North site in response to the municipality’s call for employee housing proposals. At that time some preliminary studies of the site were done by the developer and municipal staff before the project was rejected.

Glacier Creek Development had an option to purchase the Cheakamus North site for $750,000 in 1996. Regan purchased the property, which is still zoned RR1, last year for $2.5 million. Regan’s proposal included approximately 470 bed units on the site.

While the 1996 Glacier Creek proposal did not establish any benchmarks for the property, Regan’s proposal was for less than half the density. However, there were other aspects to Regan’s plan the housing authority liked as well: It was a whole new subdivision, as opposed to an infill project, and therefore it was unlikely to generate opposition from neighbours, at the same time it would make a considerable dent in the need for rental housing. Moreover, Regan was going to build and own the townhouses, leasing them to local businesses who would in turn rent them to employees. Small businesses would have a source of housing for their employees without having to take out a mortgage.

And according to Bob Adams of the chamber of commerce, small businesses need that type of housing.

"We know that we are in the range of 900-1,000 beds short, according to anyone who has done their research, and there are only 350 coming on stream this next year. So we are still going to be 550-600 beds short… and it normally takes about three years to work these things through the process," Adams said. "I know we were looking forward to having some input (on the Whistler Three proposal) at the public forum. We were anxiously looking forward to that."

Wake said he doesn’t understand how municipal staff have decided the valley’s employee housing needs have shifted.

"The goal we said we’re moving toward was one-third (of employees housed locally be in) restricted housing." Wake noted the one-third goal was arbitrarily set in 1997. The WHA has since realized that goal is probably true for today, but the other two-thirds of the rental housing supply is also dwindling as older homes, and the suites in them, are torn down or renovated.

"We’ve been saying for three years that the private sector supply of suites is eroding," Wake said.

"If we said we need 40 per cent restricted employee housing, that’s another 800 beds."

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