British Columbia

Shivering van dwellers a sign of Whistler's housing crunch

Whistler, B.C., workers Dan Davies and Andrew James have learned to bundle up tight every night before they tuck themselves in. They are part of a small community of people forced to live in vans around Canada's largest ski resort.

Parking lot residents struggle to stay warm at night

Winter "home on wheels" in Whistler

6 years ago
Duration 1:21
CBC's Chris Brown gets a look at the lengths some Whistler workers are going to in order to stay in the resort this winter.

Whistler, B.C., workers Dan Davies and Andrew James have learned to bundle up tight every night before they tuck themselves in.

"This is probably the finest home on wheels you could ever have," said Davies, proudly showing off the pair's unheated 1970s van.

Dan Davies and Andrew James bought a van so they would have somewhere to live while working in Whistler this winter. (Chris Corday/CBC)

It has folded-down seats for a shared bed, rusted doors and barely enough room to store their bags and ski gear.

Davies, a 24-year-old carpenter from Wales, arrived with his friend at the beginning of December hoping to work in the resort community.

Getting a job wasn't a problem. Finding a place to live was.

Whistler is booming and housing is in short supply.

The pair from Wales are good humoured about their cramped and chilly living situation in Whistler. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

With nighttime temperatures often dipping below -15 C in Whistler, staying warm is a challenge.

"We turn the car on for 20 or 25 minutes and then jump under the covers and go to sleep," said James.

The pair bought a gym membership and use the showers and toilets there.

James and Davies put this ad on Craigslist hoping to find a room, or even just a driveway to plug in their van overnight. (Facebook)

Few options

"It's not ideal but with the housing crisis we have here, we just deal with whatever we've got," said Davies.

They say they are constantly coming across other workers camping in parking lots because they've been unable to find other places to live.

This ad posted on social media asks $1,000 a month for a bunk in a studio apartment shared by 4 people. (Facebook)

"There's a girl who works in the supermarket and she lives in a van by herself," said James. 

Rental sites such as Craigslist show how accommodation in the community is almost impossible to find.
Whistler is considering a bylaw to restrict short term rentals like Airbnb in residential neighbourhoods. (Canadian Press)

One recent ad for the top bunk of a bunk bed in an apartment shared by four people was listed for $1,000.

Another for a condo in the Creekside area was asking $2,300 for the one bedroom.

Seasonal squeeze

Whistler is in the midst of the biggest boom in its history, even larger than before the 2010 Olympics.

Demand is being fuelled by the low Canadian dollar and great skiing and boarding conditions.

Whistler's Deputy Mayor Jack Crompton is hoping property owners in Whistler will consciously choose to rent their properties to local workers. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Nestled in the mountains and with a community plan that limits new development, an already-tight housing market has become even tighter.

"We have added 1,500 new jobs in two years and for a community of 10,000 people, that's a huge number," said Jack Crompton, deputy mayor of Whistler.

"It's a very real challenge. Businesses that can't provide housing to their staff end up not being able to hire," he said.
Whistler worker Gayle Mansell has been sharing a bed in her daughter's shared room since the end of November. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Reverse empty-nester

Gayle Mansell is a Whistler house cleaner whose apartment lease ran out in October.

She says she was so desperate to find another place to live, her daughter, who also lives in Whistler, took to social media to plead with people to help.

But she still doesn't have a place of her own.

"I'm sharing a bed with my daughter. It's a king size, thank goodness," laughed Mansell as she scrolled through Whistler's limited Craigslist housing ads on a laptop.

"You don't ever expect to be moving back in with your daughter."

It can't be a long term solution as the landlord won't allow it, but so far she can't find anything within her $1,500-a-month budget.

"People are begging almost. The carpet, the floor! I don't want to get to that point," she said.

Homes for workers

Whistler recently formed the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing to explore short and long term solutions.
Thousands of people descend on Whistler every winter to work over the busy ski season. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

One of the first initiatives, launched just before Christmas, is to to pair local homeowners who have space to spare in their homes with businesses that need rooms for their workers.

So far nine businesses, with a total of 60 employees have signed up, and three homeowners have expressed interest in taking people in.

Marla Zucht, of the Whistler Housing Authority, says 75 percent of the resort municipality's workforce lives in Whistler. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

"We're asking if they have vacant space, whether it's a room in their house or an empty suite to consider renting it," said Marla Zucht, with the Whistler Housing Authority.

The Whistler Housing Authority's new long-term rental apartments are under construction this winter near the site of the former 2010 Olympic athletes' village. (Chris Corday/CBC)

The municipality is also building 100 new rental apartments largely funded by the province at a site near the former 2010 Winter Olympics Athletes village.

They should be finished by the end of the summer.

However, with 615 people already on a wait list, it could take more than two years to get one of the coveted apartments.

Airbnb problem

Whistler's accommodation crunch is hardly unique for resort communities that deal with seasonal workers arriving every year.

But of late, municipal officials say the problem has been exacerbated because homes that would normally be used for long-term living are being rented out to tourists instead.
MEI Secondary School says a student has died during a ski trip to Whistler. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Whistler's bylaws permit nightly rentals in and around the village centre but prohibits them in most other subdivisions to try to preserve homes for people working there.

But many homeowners have turned to sites such as VRBO and Airbnb and are using their properties for tourist rentals anyway.

"Our goal is to restrict the rentals to the core of the village where it was meant to be," said Crompton, the deputy mayor, adding a crackdown on the illegal rentals is also part of the municipality's housing strategy.
Some van-dwellers say they've been forced to leave Whistler after being ticketed too often for illegally parking overnight. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Parking lot policing

The village isn't fond of people camping out in its parking lots either.

People discovered living in vans or campers get ticketed — or worse.

"We could be towed away," said Davies.

"But we're not too worried.  If we get towed away, we're in the van!"

The allure of a winter in Whistler, though, is strong for those looking for fun, parties, and arguably the best ski-lifestyle anywhere in the world.

"It has been a dream of mine to come here for the last few years," said Davies.

"So there's no chance I'm leaving. I'll stay in this van the whole winter."