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Urban Planning + Architecture

Idea #12: Zone for Affordable Housing

BC has far too few affordable homes. Whistler has none. Councillor Tim Wake warns: "Plan early, or react later."

Monte Paulsen 1 Jan

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes reader suggestions about housing and other issues. E-mail him at [email protected].

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Bright ideas for 2008.

[Editor's note: Rather than look back over the year that was, the Tyee has offering its readers a dozen New Ideas for the New Year. They're textbook cases of thinking outside the box, all of them from people trying to make B.C. a better place to live. Later in January, we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for 2008, and will publish a selection.]

With real-estate prices skyrocketing while wages remain stagnant, British Columbia is about to confront a crisis in affordable housing.

With the median price of a home topping $1.2 million, Whistler is already there.

"How does anybody pay $1.2 million for a house?" Whistler municipal councillor Tim Wake asked at a recent housing forum. "First you need $300,000 for a down payment. I have no idea where any first-time homebuyer would get that. Then what? You're going to make payments on a $900,000 mortgage?"

And with the average price of a single-family home in Whistler expected to more than triple to $3 million by 2010, Whistler has crossed a kind of financial frontier, on the other side of which it is simply not possible for even a successful two-income family to buy a home.

"This is a challenge that has hit resort communities kind of as a precursor to many of our other municipalities in B.C. and Alberta, because the escalating values in real estate have hit resort communities first," Wake said. "And I think there are some lessons to be learned from those resort communities."

Seasonal workers hit first

Wake has watched Whistler's housing crisis grow for a decade, first as head of the Whistler Housing Authority, and since 2005 as a municipal councillor and as a consultant who advises resort communities throughout North America on affordable housing infrastructure and administration.

"Initially, it was a challenge of basically all the kids who came to work for a winter in Whistler: running the lifts, serving in the restaurants, jobs like that," Wake said. "But that soon started to creep into not having affordable housing opportunities for mid-level managers, for senior mangers, and even for business owners. And then around 2000, we got to the point where housing was not affordable for anybody."

Like B.C.'s current population of 10,000 homeless people, Whistler's working-class housing shortage offered local officials a kind of early warning of the wider housing crisis to come. But that warning was not heeded in Whistler, in part because many Whistler residents saw themselves as disconnected from the transient workers, and failed to recognize that they were subject to the same market forces.

"In the early stages, there was the community, and where they live, and then there was staff. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with employee housing. It was perceived as nothing but problems: it was parties, it was transient population, it was people who weren't invested in the community. Many Whistler residents would have preferred to house them in Squamish," Wake said.

"But in the last five or seven years, it's just gotten out of reach for virtually everybody," Wake said. "We learned the hard way that the very best way to solve this problem was to integrate the community."

Housing market failure

Unlike Vancouver and other communities where the housing debate had been triggered by rampant homelessness, Whistler is more clearly focused on developing housing for working families.

"I don't want to give the impression that social housing isn't important. It's very important. But I think all the recent attention on social housing may have clouded the issue that we're facing right now," Wake said.

"Affordable home ownership has typically been at the lower end of market housing.... For the longest time, the market did provide the solutions for us," Wake said.

"What's happening now is that that sector is experiencing housing market failure. It is no longer providing for a large segment of our communities. People are working, but the incomes they earn do not match the housing opportunities that are there, both rental and ownership," Wake said.

"Until just a few years ago, it was the acquisition of affordable land that was the challenge. Now, with the escalation of construction costs, we've got a double-whammy. The market just isn't doing it anymore."

Zoning for sustainability

"One of the first things municipalities can do is create the zoning for affordable housing," Wake said.

Wake urged rural and suburban communities to zone land for affordable housing as soon as possible, and set it aside for later use. "This is something we didn't do in Whistler."

In urban and resort areas, the establishment of affordable zoning involves a more intricate balance. "In many jurisdictions today, this means rezoning brownfield sites and infill housing."

"Start downtown and work out. Create complete neighbourhoods," Wake suggested. "We really want to marry the affordable housing opportunities with smart growth principles. We're not talking about building inexpensive housing out on the periphery. We've got to build it in walk-able, livable neighbourhoods," Wake said.

Among Wake's favourite examples are redevelopments in two Colorado resort communities.

Aspen developed a village of small duplexes that all face a car-free central green, and all share a nearby parking and storage area. The entire compound is within walking distance of downtown.

Breckenridge redeveloped a brownfield into a neighbourhood of small wooden row houses that are architecturally reminiscent of the houses built for mining families a century before -- except this time, the workers own the homes, in Wellington Neighbourhood, bought for an average of $80,000 below market rate.

"Once again, the central green is their social area. The front of their houses all open on to the community garden and green," Wake said of the Breckenridge row houses. "It's all single family, with a backyard and space for a garage that could be built later on."

"Plan now, or react later"

Wake advises municipal councillors against getting too caught up in the unending game of determining how many units are needed.

"We all seem to struggle to find some magic number of how many units we'll need in the next 20 years. You know what? It's impossible," he said.

"Really what you want to be thinking about, in my view, is how many units you need per year for the next six years. And then, once we get those built, you'll get a sense of how many more you need."

"For small communities, it really is a matter of getting out there and getting your first project in the ground," he said.

"Serving as a municipal councillor, I get how hard it is for the politician to actually initiate solutions. It's very challenging. I find as local governments, we are reluctant to move forward on what appears to be a risky solution. But most of these solutions don't need to have a lot of risk."

And the alternative, Wake warned, is worse: "Plan early, or react later. Most municipalities seem to be reacting later.

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