For a quarter century, the municipality has primarily focused on workforce housing; local supportive housing providers are hopeful that changes soon
For a resort community that has suffered the effects of an affordable housing shortage for years, if not decades, you might be surprised to learn Whistler has never had an official long-term housing strategy in place.
“We need one, and there’s work to do on it,” said Mayor Jack Crompton following the Feb. 21 council meeting that offered more insight into the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) overarching 2023-26 Strategic Plan.
That’s not to say the RMOW hasn’t taken a long view at its housing landscape in the past, however.
“This might be the first time we have developed something called a long-term housing strategy, but it’s definitely not the first time we have applied a long-term view to our housing challenges,” Crompton said in a follow-up interview this week. “Developing the Whistler Housing Authority and the Whistler Development Corporation (WDC), investing in affordable home ownership and a large inventory of municipally owned rental housing are all examples of that long-term strategy at work.”
By the numbers, there is arguably no other Canadian community of comparable size that has done more to deliver employee-restricted housing than Whistler has. Since the Whistler Housing Authority’s (WHA) founding in 1997, the municipal subsidiary has facilitated more than 7,000 employee rental and ownership beds, and has, for years, maintained its stated goal of housing at least three-quarters of the resort’s eligible workforce locally. The WHA model is taught in textbooks and has been held up both nationally and internationally as a model for affordable housing.
But, of course, workforce housing is but one small segment of the housing spectrum.
“A lot of the approach has been centred around the WDC and the WHA … but we should also recognize that their successes haven’t resulted in housing being any more affordable or more attainable for many,” said Sean Easton, co-executive director of Whistler-based supportive housing and employment provider Zero Ceiling, which has been committed to ending youth homelessness since launching in 1997, the same year as the WHA. “How are we going to start approaching things differently? WHA was progressive 25 years ago when it started, and they’ve been doing great things over that time, but now we need something else to be progressive.”
There are signs of change, however. In last year’s provincially mandated housing needs assessment, the RMOW acknowledged the need for transitional and emergency housing in Whistler, which would represent a seismic shift in Whistler’s approach to housing.
The RMOW is also working with a Squamish-based consultant, Jessie Abraham Planning and Development, to create Whistler’s first Vulnerable Populations Housing Needs Assessment, expected for completion by October.
“The purpose of the assessment is to identify the existing supply of and community need for housing for vulnerable populations. Vancouver Coastal Health is a key collaborator and funder of the project,” said a municipal communications official, in an email. “While the project approach is still in the process of being finalized, stakeholder engagement and consultation with local and regional housing and service providers will be a key component.”
Easton, who also serves on the board of the revamped Whistler Valley Housing Society (WVHS), is hopeful Sea to Sky non-profits with experience in social housing, such as Zero Ceiling, the Sea to Sky Community Services Society, the Howe Sound Women’s Centre, and the Whistler Independent Supported Housing Society will not only be at the table to consult with the municipality, but could be considered as potential partners on delivering supportive housing—and he believes they’re well equipped to do so.
“Provincial and federal funding mandates have moved to prioritize marginalized groups and low-income families, and the WHA’s mandate has stayed focused on workforce housing, which hasn’t been as much of a priority for granting,” Easton said. “I think there’s a bit of a disconnect in understanding the potential partnership that can be gained between non-profit housing providers and the RMOW. I’m not quite sure what the disconnect is.”
Asked if the RMOW would consider partnering with such organizations, Crompton said he is open to the idea, but hinted that the WVHS is likely better suited to the task.
“We’ll learn a lot from this report. I expect it to have some insights about exactly how our community can be a part of coming up with solutions,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what that will look like on the other side of the report, but certainly our minds are open to coming up with solutions. I’m enthusiastic about the work of the WVHS and opportunities that could come out of their work. I’m hopeful that they’ll find ways to work with social service providers in our community.”
The WVHS has committed to helping facilitate the delivery of affordable housing that falls outside of the WHA’s purview, and has signed a letter of intent to purchase one of two incoming WDC-developed buildings slated for Cheakamus Crossing, while the WHA is conducting a feasibility study to determine if it has the capacity to finance the other.
Housing is one of four core priorities settled on by municipal council and staff in its 2023-26 Strategic Plan, and Crompton said it is far and away the top priority—“and it’s not close.”
“Every conversation I have with every member of council, housing comes up,” he added.
Alongside its long-term housing strategy, as well as a commitment to expediting the delivery of existing projects, the RMOW will introduce a new Housing Action Plan, which will outline a number of initiatives aimed at improving housing availability within Whistler’s neighbourhoods.
“Our goal with those two items moving in parallel is that we take action on our housing needs right now and not wait until we know exactly what the future will hold,” Crompton said. “We’re planning for that future.”
Learn more at whistler.ca/housing.