Footdragging unforgivable for affordable housing

At a dawdle of a pace that gives new meaning to "being on northern time," the Yukon government has finally gotten around to earmarking its remaining affordable housing cash. 

At a dawdle of a pace that gives new meaning to “being on northern time,” the Yukon government has finally gotten around to earmarking its remaining affordable housing cash.

It took eight long years for the territory to commit to spend this $17.5 million, provided by Ottawa to fund “immediate action.”

This is, quite simply, negligence. It is no stretch to say that lives could have been saved if the territory had spent this money on helping the territory’s most vulnerable sooner than it has.

Homelessness, addictions and mental health problems remain on prominent display in downtown Whitehorse, prompting the city and Kwanlin Dun to hold a recent public forum on the subject. Business owners periodically fret how these issues affect downtown shops. Yet the Yukon Party’s typical response is to drag its feet when asked to do more.

So, why so slow? Well, governments often prefer to get the unpopular stuff out of the way early in their mandate – like, say, triggering a massive legal battle with First Nations over the fate of the Peel watershed – while saving some goodies for late in their term that will remain fresh in the minds of voters as they cast their ballots during the next election.

The long wait is also probably partly explained by the Yukon Party’s reluctance to acknowledge thorny social problems in the first place, and mixed views within cabinet about what solutions they are willing to stomach.

Certainly, the government’s deep-sixing of its own affordable housing project in Whitehorse seems to indicate as much. That project would have resulted in about 75 new apartments in Whitehorse with rents capped below the median. The government was all for helping the city’s hard-up renters, until it heard that landlords feared it would wash out rents, at which point it pulled the plug.

The government now plans to spread the remaining housing money around many new pots of cash. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine these funds will create any big change – which, we suppose, is probably the whole point.

Some of that money will be given as a rent supplement to the same people targeted in the nixed affordable housing scheme, who don’t live in social housing but struggle to pay the rent. Other money will simply be given to existing landlords to renovate some of the city’s grottier units.

Another pot will go towards the original purpose of encouraging construction of affordable housing. However, it remains to be seen how much of this money will be spent in the capital, as originally intended, as the fund is now open to all municipalities.

It’s laudable that the Yukon Party has put some of its affordable housing money towards building a new homeless shelter for the Salvation Army, but it’s worth reflecting that, if the government were serious about treating this project as a priority, it would have already been built by now.

We’ve reported for many years how the shelter is often filled to capacity during the winter months, requiring clients to sleep on mats on the floor or in chairs. The Yukon Party promised to build a new shelter during its 2011 election platform, and it has had money burning a hole in its pockets for such work since 2008. It seems unconscionable that it’s taken so long.

The government also missed an opportunity when it snubbed a coalition of non-profits that wanted to see a facility built around the philosophy of “housing first,” which would allow tenants struggling to get off the bottle provided they weren’t being disruptive. Such projects are underpinned by a growing body

of evidence that shows that it’s easier to dry out with a roof over your head.

Surprisingly, even the federal Conservatives – not exactly a bunch of bleeding hearts – have thrown their support behind this approach. Our local MP recently bragged about how Ottawa is giving out money to such ends. It’s too bad our territorial government isn’t willing to accept some of it. But it seems they’re having enough trouble getting money out the door as things stand.