Whistler community has a real local feel | SteamboatToday.com

Whistler community has a real local feel

Housing in Whistler adds to sense of community

Luke Graham

— Entering his 11th season in Whistler — locals don't count years, just seasons on the mountain — Andrew Mitchell jokes that there might be 10 people in Whistler, British Columbia, who are here for a job.

For the rest, and in many ski and resort towns like it, people are here for what goes on outside of those 40 hours a week in the office.

It's the world-class skiing, the mountain biking and the slower-paced lifestyle.

Mitchell, originally from To­­ronto, is a five-minute bike ride from work, a five-minute bus ride to the mountain and can step out of his place and take advantage of the vast number of running and mountain biking trails.

At 36, he's married, has a 2-year-old daughter he's teaching to ski and is firmly entrenched in the community.

He's the type of person a community wants to keep around.

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And thanks to foresight, a little trial and error and a solid housing plan, Mitchell is also a first-time homeowner.

"It's stability," Mitchell said. "It's a lot of things. For one, I doubted my ability to have a future here."

But he does, thanks to the Whistler Housing Authority and the development of resident restricted housing.

About 77 percent of Whist­ler's work force is able to live in Whistler. That figure should move north of 80 percent when the 2010 Winter Olympic Games conclude and the Athletes' Vil­lage just south of Whistler turns into resident restricted housing or affordable housing.

"We're certainly evolving in the program," said Marla Zucht, general manager for the Whistler Housing Authority. "Through trials and tribulations, we recognized we had a housing crisis. We had to do something."

In 1997, the agency started buying units for affordable housing and rental. At the time, the units were restricted, but the resale prices weren't.

It was great for those who first bought in, but it didn't prevent prices escalating.

"The first efforts to this didn't provide the long-term affordability," Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed said. "It was like the lottery system. The first people won the lottery and got their houses cheap. But when they sold, they were effectively back at the market price. It was a one-time win for certain people. We had to do something."

So through trial and error, Melamed — who moved to Whistler in 1976 and started as a lift operator — refined the philosophy.

Now, the appreciation of the affordable units is tied to the Consumer Price Index. It's helped keep them affordable and keep Whistler's work force in Whistler.

"There's a trade-off," Mitchell said. "It doesn't appreciate or sync with the market. It goes with the Consumer Price Index. But that's sensible. One to 2 percent a year is fine with me."

A model for other resorts

When Melamed was looking at the housing crisis in 1996, he toured mountain town resorts across the United States, including Aspen, Keystone and Beaver Creek.

He found that for the vitality of the town and for the resort, employee and affordable housing were a must.

"It's just something very special when you come and your server has goggle tan line and is talking about the epic powder day," he said. "They can talk with the guests about it. They can relate. They can give them advice on what to do."

To Melamed, each situation is different. Just because it works in Whistler doesn't mean it will work in Vail or Steam­boat Springs.

But he said the key is to open up the dialogue. The Whistler proposal wasn't perfect at first. But now it's created a real sense of community.

"I think it's critical to have the conversation," he said. "We can't say our example works in every situation. But the sooner the better. People have to have the courage to start these things. You don't get it right, right away. There's a bit of learning that goes into it."

All part of the process

Mitchell and his family spent two years on the waiting list before buying their condo in 2006.

When units come open, the people on the top of the wait list get the first look at them. Mitchell said he was lucky because three or four families looked at his unit and decided to wait for something else.

The system seems to be working. A 900- to 1,200-square-foot condo in Whistler would go for as much as $800,000 on the open market. The Housing Authority provides its units for $200,000 to $300,000. In the rental program, on the open market a person could pay as much as $1,500 a month. With the program, that figure is about $800.

"The second-home property owners aren't who live here," said Zucht, about the Housing Authority. "They aren't at the grocery stores every day. It's the work force that lives here."

It's that sense of attachment to the community that has kept Mitchell here. He said he'd probably still try to find a way to live in the area without the program. But that would mean living 30 minutes to the north in Pemberton or 45 to the south in Squamish.

"No one has anything like this," said Mitchell, who knows most of his neighbors, many of whom have taken advantage of the program. "It's a model communities need to look at. And not just ski towns. Everyone here is a local. It's one of those great things.

"To look out on a morning when it's a powder day and it's 7 a.m. and see my neighbors I know grab their skis or boards. Then it's a race with them to get to the bus or the gondola."

At a glance

Rules for Whistler’s housing program:

■ Applicants must be of legal age and be Canadian citizens or landed immigrants. They must qualify for a pre-approved mortgage and also be qualified employees or retirees.

■ Employees must work a minimum of 20 hours per week in Whistler. Retirees must have been employed within Whistler for five of the previous six years before retiring.

■ Applicants also can’t own any nonrestricted real estate in Whistler before applying.