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The dark side of a housing drought
Acute shortage of rental units in Whistler, B.C., leaves vulnerable residents trapped
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Friday, October 19, 2018 – Page H3

WHISTLER, B.C. -- Breaking up with a partner is rough at the best of times. But for "Jay," who asked that her real name not be used, the process was painfully drawn out. For weeks, she endured verbal abuse, a barrage of insults and name-calling, as her ex came to terms with their breakup.

"I was staying at work for 14 hours a day, just trying to keep myself out of the house, because I knew when I got home, it [would] just be an attack for hours and hours," Jay recalled.

Jay slept on the couch, while her exboyfriend took the bed in their 400square-foot flat. After a few weeks of that arrangement, Jay resorted to couch surfing with friends, until her ex moved out of the apartment.

It was the only option for her at the time. "Whistler, right?" Jay said with a small, knowing chuckle.

That's the refrain from many who live in Whistler, B.C., one of the top ski-resort towns in the world, where there are fewer than 12,000 yearround residents but not enough space to house them all. A Facebook group called Whistler Housing Crisis has close to 9,000 members and posts asking for help with accommodation are made daily.

Many in the area have heard stories of two, three or four people sharing a single bedroom in a house, each paying hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars in rent. The high cost of rent is part of it - the average one bedroom is well more than $1800 a month - but the high demand is the bigger factor.

The Whistler Housing Authority provides subsidized housing options for both renters and homeowners. At the beginning of 2018, there were 658 households on the waiting list for WHA rental properties and wait times span years. The WHA estimates rental vacancy rates are about 0.5 per cent of the housing.

That's why before Jay even got to the sleeping-on-the-couch stage of her breakup, she put it off. She stayed in the relationship for an extra 10 months, weighing the cost of moving somewhere she could afford and "it being a shared room made me feel unsafe ... versus me knowing that financially, I could just try to stick to it a bit longer with him and prolong the relationship ending."

It's an aspect of the housing shortage that's not often discussed, Shana Murray said. The acting director of the Howe Sound Women's Centre says fewer and pricier housing options can exacerbate dangerous situations, especially for people in abusive or unsafe relationships.

"It is very common for women to either not seek support, because they know that there are no options for leaving, especially if they have children," she said.

And for many people struggling to find a safe place to stay, Ms. Murray says leaving Whistler isn't always an option. "When this is your home or your kids are in school here, you don't always have a choice to just pick up and leave, it's not that easy. So they're left with being stuck in a place that's less than ideal."

Jimmy Wright is choosing to leave Whistler, after four years. He's moving to Pemberton, a 30-minute commute, where he found a two-bedroom rental house for $1,500 a month. In Whistler, the best option he found was one bedroom in a four-bedroom house - for $1,200 a month.

Mr. Wright says last year, his housing options were different. He was living with a girlfriend, but they broke up in December, 2017. He slept on the couch until Valentine's Day, when she moved out. But she moved back in a week later.

Luckily for Mr. Wright, the breakup was amicable. But living with his exgirlfriend was still awkward and so was explaining it to people. "I know it's [weird], but where else do I go?

Where do you live? You don't have as many friends here who have spare rooms or people who have sofa beds to crash on."

There are some projects in the works to ease the housing crunch. In September, Vail Resorts, which owns and operates Whistler Blackcomb, announced a 200-bed staff dormitory, with rents less than $400 a month - but those rooms are just for ski-hill staff and won't be ready until 2020.

The WHA is building two apartment complexes, which will open 44 units to its wait list in early 2019, although half of those units are designated for seniors.

Last year, Whistler also heightened the regulations around Airbnbs and other short-term rentals, requiring all homeowners advertising their space to tourists to have a business licence and be zoned for tourist accommodation. Still, illegal rentals in the area are common, even with the threat of $1,000 daily fines.

Sharon, who asked to withhold her last name, rents out two of the three bedrooms in her townhouse. She and her ex-husband were on the WHA waiting list for seven years to get it, biding their time in a small condo in the village. It was a far cry from the heritage home in Victoria that they had given up to move to Whistler.

"Our exchange for our heritage home in Victoria was a one-bedroom condo in Whistler at the time, just because of the pricing. So we downsized considerably," Sharon said.

Sharon and her husband moved up to Whistler when they were in their early 50s and she said they both underestimated how hard the move would be. Being stuck in a small space and competing for housing with people 30 years younger took a toll. Their marriage fizzled, but they continued living together for another two years before officially separating. For Sharon, the humiliation was hard to bear - not just because of the relationship, but thinking back on what she'd left behind.

"I look back now and my home in Victoria that we had is probably worth close to $2-million [now]," Sharon said. Now, she says she can't look at the market any more, as a self-preservation technique. "I call it post-equity depression!"

Now, Sharon says her rental income, along with her Canada Pension Plan and a part-time job, is her retirement fund.

As the Resort Municipality of Whistler nears an election on Saturday, its next mayor has already been acclaimed. Jack Crompton will take over the title role, and the two-term municipal councillor ran on a platform that heavily focused on housing. Mr.Crompton has advocated for a longterm housing plan, a build on the next phase of Cheakamus Crossing and revamping the WHA's policies.

Associated Graphic

The Whistler Housing Authority provides subsidized housing options for both renters and homeowners, but with a vacancy rate of about 0.5 per cent, wait times for rental properties can span years.


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