Dozens of new employee housing units are nearing completion, private lots are ready for development, and construction is nearly good to go on another 30-unit employee rental building in Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2.
These are some of the takeaways from a presentation by Whistler 2020 Development Corporation (WDC) president Eric Martin, who jointly delivered an update to Whistler council on Jan. 24 alongside WDC chair and former municipal councillor Duane Jackson.
“We want to keep moving because things aren’t getting any cheaper, and the demand and the needs are not getting any less,” Martin said. “We have to keep building, and we’re never going to satisfy the entirety of demand by any means, but the more we can do, the better; everything helps.”
Phase 2 of the WDC’s ambitious plans for Cheakamus Crossing aims to create more affordable housing in Whistler’s southernmost neighbourhood with a mixture of employee- restricted apartments and private lots.
The development comprises six subdivided lots along an extension of Mount Fee Road. The update to municipal officials focused primarily on the two buildings slated for Lot 2, and briefly touched on plans for the remaining lots.
According to Martin, the first two buildings in Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2, located at 1340 and 1360 Mount Fee Rd., are nearly complete, with WDC preparing for occupants to move in within the next two months.
“The first building is built to occupy, the second one is going for occupancy sometime mid-February, and people will start moving in hopefully early March or thereabouts,” Martin said.
A LOOK AT LOT 2
WDC also plans to build two employee- restricted rental buildings on Lot 2, a three-storey and four-storey building. The excavation work is complete on the lot, and construction is ready to begin on the first building as soon as next month.
The developer hopes to have the final permits approved for the first building between March and April this year, just as work wraps up on Lot 1, and begin construction as soon as it is approved. Having these shovel- ready projects is something Martin wants to continue moving forward with future projects in the neighbourhood.
“I’ve said this for years now: I want to have shovel-ready projects, so when we have permits, or have money, or have demand, we can see our way to building a building. That we’re ready to go so we don’t have to wait six, 12 months, or 18 months for zoning, permits or excavation,” Martin said.
The WDC revised their proposal for the second building in Lot 2 to add another floor, bringing the total from three to four storeys and increasing the capacity by 12 units. The reasoning for this revision is to add more employee housing and to take advantage of the lower overall unit cost, as additional floors cost a proportionally lower amount to add onto a structure’s foundation.
The current estimated construction cost for the two buildings is $32 million: $12.7 million for the three-story building and $19.5 million for the larger building. Combined, the two buildings will provide 78 new employee-restricted rental units. The unit mix is four studio apartments, 46 one-bedrooms and 28 two-bedrooms.
Once complete, the two buildings will help reduce the Whistler Housing Authority rental waitlist, which remains significant as demand continues to increase. According to the report, WHA’s rental waitlist currently sits at 486 households, down slightly from 506 in September.
Of those still on the waitlist, single-person households continue to make up the majority (60 per cent), followed by couples without children (23 per cent), two-parent households (10 per cent), single-parent households (four per cent) and groups of unrelated adults (two per cent).
If all goes according to plan, the estimated completion date for the first building on Lot 2 is late spring-early summer 2024, with the second building following shortly behind in the fall of next year.
INFLATION AND FINANCING CHALLENGES
The soaring inflation currently experienced in the construction industry has significantly affected the cost of the two proposed buildings, with the WDC projecting about a 15-per-cent increase in construction costs due to rising prices for materials and labour.
“I think we’ve moved through the so-called supply-chain issues and moderated quite a bit,” Martin said. “We had hyperinflation in construction in the past two years, and luckily for the first two buildings that are partially finished, we priced all those before all that happened. We are costing them well within budget, so that’s great on those two buildings.
“We’ll hopefully see some flattening of costs. We’re thinking today, based on what we know, [is that] things might flatten for a while, but it’s not going to get a whole bunch cheaper anytime soon, so we’ve got to keep moving.”
High interest rates are adding to the expense for the Lot 2 projects when compared to the first buildings in Lot 1, with interest rates increasing from around 2.7 per cent when the WDC financed the first building to closer to 5.7 per cent now.
With the increased costs, the rental price per unit will have to grow for the WDC to keep the projects financially viable. However, the estimated rates still remain below current market rates.
“If you’re a renter, the costs will be higher than they were. And if you’re a buyer, the same thing,” Martin said. “The cost will never be as low as what we built those first two buildings for, but we basically build at cost and whatever the cost is, that’s what we turn over at, so that’s what will be expected.”
Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton noted how higher building costs present a distinct challenge but assured the WDC that the council would continue to support the Cheakamus Crossing developments.
“I’m looking forward to seeing these buildings go up. It’s a challenging moment, to Mr. Martin’s point earlier. Interest rates and cost inflation both moving extremely quickly makes this a unique challenge that we face,” Crompton said.
“We are committed as an organisation and as a community, to ensuring that we build housing and build it now. It won’t be easy, and I’m personally grateful for the team of people that we have working on it.”
FUTURE OF REMAINING LOTS IN PHASE 2
In November, the WDC secured a development permit to start work on excavating Lot 5. The site will eventually be home to an apartment
building that will house 90 rental units. The WDC expects it to be the next shovel-ready project available for potential provincial and federal funding. The estimated project cost is pegged at $32 million, and the building is targeted for completion by late 2025 if no significant delays occur.
Additionally, construction of 48 townhouse units on Lot 3 will follow in the next few years. Around 80 per cent of the blasting and excavation on this property is already complete, with the materials used to create roads and structural fills on neighbouring parcels, WDC said.
The WDC’s funding model relies on the sale of land for private developments adjacent to the employee-restricted housing in Cheakamus and using that income to new projects.
In Cheakamus Phase 2, the private land development is called River Run. Of the 23 lots for sale, 22 have already sold, providing millions for the WDC to help pay off debts incurred from constructing the first two buildings in the development.
“It’s a great source of income. It’s the only source of income we have. It goes back to the original business plan from 2006, which was to develop only as much market housing as needed to generate income to pay for the affordable housing,” Martin said.
According to Martin, the market lots are now fully serviced with underground utilities and are ready for development, with several development permits currently being processed by the RMOW. Once complete, the private lots will add a mixture of single-family homes and duplexes to the neighbourhood.