The housing crisis is here

The rental crisis, which has made headlines in places like Toronto and Vancouver, is alive and well in the the Yukon.

The clock is ticking for Megan Breen, her husband, three kids, and dog.

A couple of months ago, the landlord who owns the Copper Ridge duplex they’ve called home for the last year and a half said he wanted to move back into the unit. They have until the end of May to find a new place.

That might not sound so urgent, but the Whitehorse rental market is now so tight that any posted vacancy immediately receives a deluge of interest. Breen says she’s inquired about 15 different places in the last month and has so far come up empty.

“As soon as we try to contact the (prospective landlord) there’s like 30 applications or it’s already taken,” she said. “It’s a scramble.”

Breen says she’s now taking anti-anxiety medication because the house hunt is so stressful.

Fed up, Breen took to a Facebook page devoted to Whitehorse property rentals to vent about the lack of affordable rental options and called on the Yukon Housing Corporation to build more units. It struck a chord. Numerous posters, many of whom face housing issues of their own, commiserated.

On Kijiji and Facebook alike, there are often more people posting in search of accommodation than there are accommodations offered. If you’re a pet owner, it’s even tougher to find a place. The rental crisis, which has made headlines in places like Toronto and Vancouver, is alive and well in the the Yukon.

The vacancy rate for rental accommodations of all types and sizes, according to the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, was three per cent. The next survey results, due to be tabulated in April will be interesting, because anecdotally, the market seems even tighter than that.

The median monthly rent, per the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, was $986, and has been rising steadily since 2012. The average home sale price actually dropped in 2016, but it was from a largely unaffordable $425,200 to a still-largely-unaffordable $420,300.

All signs point to a major uptick in the mining industry. Exploration is projected to increase this summer, majors are buying into promising properties, and several advanced projects are moving through the regulatory regime.

Broadly speaking, this is good economic news. But the Yukon already boasts Canada’s lowest unemployment rate, and a mining boom will mean an influx of new workers. Some of these will live in camps, while others will be fly-in workers. Many will enter the housing market and drive demand — and prices — even higher.

The experience of the northern Australian city of Darwin, which underwent a boom driven by a major liquefied natural gas project, was recorded in the journal Human Geographies in 2013. Australian researchers found Darwin’s rental vacancy rate plummeted to 0.6 per cent during the first 12 months of the boom, forcing median rental prices for houses to increase 27.3 per cent during the first 12 months of the boom, and apartment rents up 15.2 per cent during the same period. (The boom has now gone bust and housing prices are falling, but still higher than they were pre-boom.)

The researchers found that Indigenous people, refugees, single parents, youth and people with disabilities ended up spending a greater share of their income on rent and were more likely to end up homeless, having been priced out of the rental market.

This experience has been repeated time and again. Petroleum booms in Williston, North Dakota, and Fort McMurray caused massive housing shortages, plus major increases in crime and huge pressures on existing police, infrastructure and social services.

Again, this is not an argument against mining. It is a central pillar of our economy and one of the ways we pay for the quality of life most of us are fortunate enough to enjoy. It is an argument for foresight and caution: the Australian researchers found that consultation and planning could reduce the undesirable socio-economic impacts of major resource booms.

There are a few encouraging signs of action: As the News reported this week, Challenge Disability Resource Group wants to build up to 48 affordable units downtown. In its budget tabled April 27, the territorial government announced a package of housing-related spending, including $1.5 million for the First Nations Housing Program, $1 million in matching funds for rental construction and $500,000 to support Habitat for Humanity projects. The federal government’s most recent budget included $24 million in Yukon-specific housing funds, although that money is spread out over 11 years.

In Dawson City, which is prone to major seasonal housing shortages during the summer, a new not-for-profit nine-unit building aimed at middle-income earners will open in June.

Meanwhile, the City of Whitehorse is beginning to embark on its most recent planning process. This is an opportunity for the city to encourage densification, especially in the downtown core, and infill, which would bring more housing units located close to services and jobs. City council must resist the temptation to kowtow to residents demanding NIMBYism and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).

The Silver government also budgeted $9.8 million for new lots in Whistle Bend, including 79 lots that will come on the market this year.

But $400,000-plus houses don’t do much to solve the affordability problem, even if they do help increase supply. All levels of government need to ensure that new housing is available for Yukoners of every income level.

Worthwhile as these various initiatives may be, the units they create will take years to come onto the market. The private sector has found it largely uneconomical to build rental apartments lately, so it’s up to the public sector, which is not known for working fast, to get new units on the market. Time is of the essence.

For Megan Breen, none of these projects will solve her immediate problem. If nothing comes up, her family’s last resort is to stay in a camper until they can find a place.

Breen’s story is all too familiar to many Yukoners. Without quick action, it’s one that will become even more common.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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