Containers suggested for Whistler's housing shortage
Jeff Lee, The Vancouver Sun
Published: Monday, January 14, 2008
WHISTLER -- Accommodation for workers in this mountain resort is in such short supply that local politicians want to bring in shipping containers or construction trailers to house them.
The plan, developed by the Whistler Housing Authority, local chamber of commerce and several municipal councillors, is to create as many as 250 beds by establishing a park made up of construction trailers of the kind used for oil-field workers or by setting up stackable shipping containers.
The containers would be modified and brought up to a livable standard, including electricity, windows and insulation, according to one of the project's backers, Coun. Ralph Forsyth.
The idea is the brainchild of a committee called "Housing Our Many Employees" (HOME) that has tried to find short- and long-term solutions to the perennial employee housing shortage.
Forsyth and fellow Coun. Tim Wade, who will bring the proposal to council in the second week of February, say it may be the only way to ease the tremendous pressure local businesses are facing in retaining staff during the busy winter season.
While accommodation for workers is always a problem in high-priced Whistler, this year is worse because the resort's popularity is on an upswing, Forsyth said.
There are more visitors wanting more services and not enough accommodation for the staff needed to serve them.
"We're aware of the critical shortage of housing for our employees, and it contributes to the deteriorating service standards," Forsyth said.
In the high season, now, Whistler has a workforce approaching 14,000. But it has only enough accommodation for 10,500, according to Forsyth.
That will be worse in 2010, the year of the Olympic Winter Games, when the Vancouver Organizing Committee will be looking for accommodation for its own staff, volunteers and unaccredited media, he said.
But this year is already worse than ever, according to Stuart Cook, a manager of the Pinnacle International Hotel, who said: "I've never seen it this bad."
The committee isn't worried about the image of stacked shipping containers being used to house employees.
"These would be building blocks. All the container is, is the frame. You cut holes, you put in windows, you put in vents, you put in insulation, you put in ventilation," Wade said.
"They would be actual containers," Forsyth said. "We've seen videos of these places, and they are very nice, livable places. It looks like Lego blocks on the outside, they're temporary, but they are very livable on the inside."
Forsyth said businesses would have to underwrite the entire proposal -- including the costs of setting it up and running it. "The reality is the government, this municipality, doesn't have the money for this."
He said businesses would be asked to guarantee to pay for whatever beds they need for their workers, at a probable cost of about $500 a month per bed. Whether they recoup that from employees would be up to them.
"Because a rising tide floats all boats, and in this case there is up-front money involved, we will go to the major employers who have enough money to say they will take some beds," Forsyth said.
Forsyth and Wade say they've looked at one company that supplies modified containers, and the HOME committee is dealing with one property owner that may be willing to make land available on a temporary basis.
The committee hopes to gather enough letters of intent from businesses to underwrite the cost of the project by the second week of February.
The proposal might also help take pressure off some workers who are being gouged by landlords who cram as many employees as they can find into a single facility, Wade said.
The container trailer park idea is an immediate hit for Pete Van Beek, a server at Milestone's Restaurant. He lives in a three-bedroom house with six others, including several who can't find beds anywhere. While he doesn't need a place to stay, he knows of many who do.
"I can tell you right now people would snatch them up," said Van Beek, who has worked for Milestone's for five years. "I've got three couch-surfers in my place right now. They're friends and co-workers so we feel we have to help them out."
But others worry that the idea isn't a good long-term solution.
Eric Earle, one of the managers at Milestone's, doesn't believe Milestone's would want to participate in the shipping container park because it sends the wrong message.
"Do you want the word out there that this world-wide famous resort is resorting to kids who come to work here staying in shipping containers?" he said. "I'm pretty sure Milestone's would not want its staff having to stay in such a place."
Instead, Milestone's tries to hire staff who already have housing, and offers an incentive program aimed at retaining workers. Of the 80 people employed there, nearly 50 form a regular year-round core, Earle said.
Earle, who has lived in Whistler since 1989, blames past and current councils for the enduring problem.
"Where was the vision when we needed this accommodation 10 years ago?" he asked. "I feel bad about this, but the idea of a container trailer park is something that triggers in me the question, is that really a road we want to go down?"
The proposal follows an unsuccessful attempt by the HOME committee to persuade owners of vacation properties to rent 100 beds directly to businesses that would guarantee the employees would take care of them and pay their rent on time. Not a single homeowner took up the offer, Forsyth said.
"The idea was not to do a deal with some kid from Toronto you would never see again," he said. "You would deal with a business in Whistler. But we didn't get any takers. People are very fearful of their places being damaged."
The irony, according to Forsyth and Wade, is that after the Olympics, more housing will be available for workers. That's because after the Games, nearly 1,000 units of housing being built to house Olympic athletes will be turned over to the housing authority.
On Saturday, councillors told a town hall meeting that the municipality frowns on landlords who gouge long-term tenants or want to throw them out for the Olympics to cash in on better-paying tourists.
"It is non-negotiable for us to be in the situation in 2010 where people are booting out long-term residents and employees in order to rent to tourists," Coun. Eckhard Zeidler said. "We find that pretty unacceptable."
Whistler is already backing away from a proposal to temporarily permit homeowners in resident-only zones to rent rooms on a nightly basis to Olympic visitors, Mayor Ken Melamed told the meeting.
I wouldn't mind living in one of these.
Could this be our answer to the Vancouver homeless as well? :p The one in Amsterdam is awesome.