Affordable rentals on their way

Rebecca Aldous / Whistler Question

Up to 100 Whistler employees may find themselves in affordable rental units early next year.

Last week the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) approved rezoning of municipally owned land to pave the way for 27 resident restricted rental units. Dubbed the Cloudburst development, the three-storey apartment building in the Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood is being constructed under the umbrella of the Whistler Housing Association (WHA). Officials anticipate the new employee apartments will be completed early in 2017.

“We are really excited about this new opportunity,” WHA general manager Marla Zucht said. “The year ahead will still be consumed with planning.”

The 1310 Cloudburst Drive lot has been subdivided into two lots. One lot will be used for the proposed rental apartment building and the other lot will be reserved for a future residential development.

The WHA annually assesses housing needs in the resort. For the past five years the authority has focused on affordable homeownership projects, Zucht said. Affordable homeownership represents 62 per cent of Whistler’s total current resident restricted housing inventory, while rental housing represents 38 per cent. Last year the WHA saw a shift in need.

“The rental waitlist surpassed the ownership waitlist,” Zucht said.

There are many factors contributing to the growing affordable rental demand, she noted. It could be attributed to a combination of Whistler’s increasing popularity and busyness and the rise of online vacation rental services, such as Airbnb.

“We know there has been a decrease in supply of long-term rentals,” Zucht said.

While availability has dropped, prices have soared. In 2015, the average advertised monthly market price for a one-bedroom unit was $1,468 and $2,243 for a two-bedroom apartment, she said. A studio came in at around $1,149.

With the aid of the municipality and partnerships with local employers, the WHA is able to provide substantially cheaper rentals. The authority’s studios go for approximately $775 and one-bedrooms for $1,000.

“It’s a huge difference,” Zucht acknowledged.

The independent municipally owned corporation set out with a goal to house at least 75 per cent of employees within Whistler’s municipal boundaries.

“We are actually exceeding that,” Zucht said, noting today the percentage sits at 79 per cent.

Affordable housing is a topic at the top of most North American resorts’ agendas, Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said. Last month at the Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST) meeting in Whistler, United States resort officials shared their woes, she noted.

“Aspen has just over 10 per cent of its workforce living within its municipal boundaries. Vail has just in the 20 per cent range. Breckenridge has a target of just over 40 per cent,” Wilhelm-Morden said.

The RMOW is one of the few resort communities in North America with a housing authority.

“We are way ahead of the game,” Wilhelm-Morden said.

The WHA already manages approximately 1,900 units of affordable rentals and ownership housing. It’s important for the housing authority and the municipality to maintain a mixture of accommodation options, Wilhelm-Morden said.

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