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Vancouver Green Party Councillor says developers should be required to sell some units at cost to Vancouver’s affordable housing agency

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Whistler had a problem. Workers in the resort municipality could not afford to live there.

And so, in 1997, the ski town north of Vancouver followed the lead of ski towns south of the border and established the Whistler Housing Authority. The agency would oversee housing development and ensure rental and ownership units were affordable enough for 75 per cent of Whistler workers to live locally. Today, 81 per cent of people who are employed in Whistler live within its boundaries.

The Whistler model is one of several affordable-housing proposals that has found its way into Vancouver's civic election campaign. Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr says Vancouver, which continuously and notoriously grapples with the issue of affordability, should look to Whistler.

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But critics question whether the model – first introduced in the Colorado ski communities of Aspen and Vail – is feasible for a city as large as Vancouver, and whether such market intervention is warranted.

Ms. Carr, in a recent visit to The Globe and Mail to discuss the election campaign, said affordable housing in Vancouver is, simply put, unaffordable. She said the Whistler model could form part of the solution.

Ms. Carr, whose party is not fielding a mayoral candidate but is hoping to have three members elected to council, said Vancouver should require developers to sell 10 per cent of their units to the city's new affordable-housing agency, at cost.

"When a developer comes in, say they're developing a condo project or a townhouse project, [the Whistler Housing Authority] basically negotiates with a developer for the number of units that will be supplied into the housing authority. It generally, I've been told, turns out to be around 10 per cent. So we've said let's make this apply to any development project of 10 units or more," she said.

Ms. Carr said Vancouver's affordable-housing agency should – like Whistler – be able to build, own, manage, rent and sell housing. That housing, she said, should then be offered for sale or rent to people who work in the city. She specifically mentioned Vancouver's police officers and firefighters, three-quarters of whom she said live outside the city.

Meena Wong, the COPE mayoral candidate, has also pointed to Whistler's example.

Marla Zucht, general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority, said the agency has amassed an inventory of about 1,900 units. She said there was some initial push-back from developers, but that has long since ceded.

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"Now, it's very much entrenched within the community," she said in an interview. Ms. Zucht said having people live close to where they work adds to Whistler's vitality.

Gordon Price, a former Vancouver councillor and director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, said there are obvious differences between Whistler and Vancouver. The former, he said, is a largely self-contained and isolated community, and the affordable-housing model has become part of its culture.

Vancouver, he said, would require a cultural shift, to say nothing of logistical issues, such as who would get first dibs on units.

"You would have to do it on a scale where literally you're talking about building a Whistler within the city [of Vancouver]. I mean, literally, it would be that amount of housing that you would have to start bringing in every year. But you don't have the land and you don't have the social consensus and you don't have the funding mechanisms," he said in an interview.

Geoff Meggs, a Vision Vancouver councillor, said the Whistler model could potentially work in the city, but he agreed it would be easier in Whistler, given the ski community's size and reliance on the single industry of tourism.

Vision's affordable-housing plan calls for 4,000 new rental units to be built over the next four years.

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Mr. Meggs did question whether Ms. Carr's proposal that 10 per cent of units be sold to the affordable-housing agency would be beneficial. He said the city already requires 20-per-cent affordable-housing contributions on large projects.

Anne McMullin, president of the Urban Development Institute, also questioned whether the 10-per-cent requirement would be more effective than the system already in place.

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