Affordable housing money finally spent

After eight years, the Yukon government finally has plans to spend the last of its Northern Housing Trust money.

After eight years, the Yukon government finally has plans to spend the last of its Northern Housing Trust money.

In 2006, Ottawa announced that the territorial government would receive $17.5 million from this fund, with the expectation that the money be used to support “immediate action.”

This week the territory announced that four housing-related projects will divvy up the remaining money – about $6 million – that has been in government piggy bank since March 2007.

On top of that, a fifth, $1-million project will expand Yukon Housing’s rent supplement program to the communities.

“Each of these programs won’t necessarily solve the housing challenges that we see,” said Matt King, vice president of operations for the Yukon Housing Corporation.

“But together, this is a suite of programs that sort of helps to balance the need to increase the supply of housing but also to help people to access existing rental housing that’s out there on the market.

“So the programs will make an impact.”

They’re expecting to be accepting applications by June.

The only one that deals explicitly with adding to the territory’s rental stock is the new Municipal Matching Rental Construction Program. Using $1 million this fiscal year and $2.5 million the next, the government will match money that municipalities put towards rental construction.

King estimates the money could help with to up to 70 new rental units spread across the territory.

That’s close to the 75 units that were promised for Whitehorse by the territorial government before its affordable housing program very publicly imploded last year.

The program would have leveraged the remaining Northern Housing Trust money – at the time $13 million – to match private and non-government organizations up to half the cost of building rental housing, provided that rents stayed low.

But when local real estate agents and landlords complained, citing concerns that the program would wash out rental prices, the government pulled the plug.

In the end, the municipalities of Carcross and Carmacks got money to build eight housing units.

The territory is staying far away from rent caps this time. Anything like that would be up to the municipalities, King said.

“If a municipality was targeting secondary garden suites and they wanted them to be rented at an affordable rate, then our program would match that as well.”

The new rental housing allowance for families has similar aims as the nixed affordable housing program. Using $1 million over four years, it is aimed at people who aren’t in social housing but struggle to make rent, King said.

To be eligible, you must pay more than 30 per cent of your income towards shelter costs and earn 80 per cent or less of the median income for Yukon.

In 2012, Statistic Canada put that at $95,583. Families could get between $200 and $600 a month.

Landlords wouldn’t know about the allowance. It would go directly from the housing corporation to the families.

Staff estimate they’ll have 40 to 50 housing allowances available per month for families across the territory, King said.

New rental quality enhancement grants get $800,000 split over the next two years. Landlords can apply for up to $10,000 a suite or $50,000 a building on improvements.

“My concern is that if someone takes a property that needs a lot of work because it’s substandard and brings it up to the required standard, will they be renting it at the same price?” said NDP MLA Kate White. “Are we going to see a wave of rent increases?”

King said that’s not the goal. “The intention behind the grants is that it’s focusing on things that improve the long-term sustainability of the suite and health and safety upgrades,” he said. “There may be some other things that qualify but it’s not intended to be for cosmetic upgrades or a higher end kitchen, that sort of thing.”

The program comes as the Yukon government is working on regulations to go with the new Landlord and Tenant Act.

“Certainly there’s likely to be some kind of minimum rental standards,” King said.

“So this would be a way for some landlords to be able to meet those minimum standards.”

Another $800,000 over the two years is going to new accessibility grants for homeowners and landlords.

The last new program expands the current rent supplement enhancement program, using $1 million spread out over four years. This program isn’t funded with the housing trust money; instead, it taps cash from an agreement between the Yukon government and CMHC.

Under the program, clients pay what they can in rent to the housing corporation, with the corporation topping up that amount to ensure the landlord receives the median rental rate. The program helps about 40 households a year in Whitehorse.

“A portion of the million dollars will be to do probably more rent supplements in Whitehorse,” King said. “But for the most part it’s intended for communities. We haven’t had the program in communities before so we’re not entirely sure what the uptake will be.”

The $50 million Northern Housing Trust Money was part of the federal budget presented in 2006. The majority of that cash went to Yukon First Nations.

White points out that the new housing projects spread the small pots of money out over years.

“So that to me is amping up their platform, which is if they don’t get re-elected, then these programs won’t be safe.”

Contact Ashley Joannou atashleyj@yukon-news.com