John Steins arrived in Dawson in the mid-1970s and squatted in a house with a couple of friends for a summer.
Three decades later, Steins is Dawson’s mayor. And he wants to ease the housing crunch that’s forcing some newcomers to squat as he did when first arriving in town.
Tent City, a campground used mainly by seasonal workers, closed before the summer of 2005 and seasonal accommodations — affordable or not — have been lacking ever since.
Council will be looking at the lack of seasonal housing this winter, said Steins in an interview with the News.
“We know there’s a demand for that kind of accommodation and if the town can play a role in that, we should,” said Steins.
“We’ll try and figure something out to help kids try and find an inexpensive place to live.”
Seasonal workers fill many of the summer jobs — often at hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses.
Finding quality housing helps bring them back for subsequent summers, or may even lead to a permanent move, said Steins.
“I know quite a few people who came here as summer students and decided to stay,” he said.
“Any community welcomes new blood, right? You don’t want to have people leaving embittered and feeling badly towards our community.”
The town and local businesses are adapting to the tighter rental market.
The Bunk House, a hotel in downtown Dawson, began offering monthly rentals in 2006 after Tent City’s closure sparked demand.
Twenty of the hotel’s 32 rooms are occupied by monthly renters, said manager Jamie Koski.
That number is higher than originally planned, she added. “We were initially only going to do eight rooms, but word got around,” said Koski. “And then we filled one floor.
“I got up here in April (this year) and I hadn’t even finished maintenance and opening it up and I already had people knocking on my door looking for a place to live.
“I was full by mid-May.”
There is still a waiting list for people looking to rent.
“I feel bad because there’s nowhere else for people to go,” said Koski.
Faye Mollberg, a waitress and bartender at the Sourdough Saloon, arrived on the steps of the Bunk House just in time to snag one of the $400-per-month rooms for the summer.
Having already spent four summers in Dawson, Mollberg knew about accommodation shortage.
“Most people have at least two jobs, or even three,” said Mollberg. “When you’re working that much you want a comfortable place to live.
“A lot of people are also trying to save money so they don’t want to pay over $500 for rent.”
There are still many people living in tents outside of Dawson at the Guggieville and Bonanza campgrounds.
At its peak, Tent City housed nearly 100 people, said Mollberg, a nursing student from Prince George.
This is her last summer in Dawson.
“I don’t think I could do another summer at the Bunk House,” she said.
The News heard about 10 people squatting in an abandoned house by the river this year. The town kicked them out earlier this summer.
Most of those people left town because they had no place to live, said Mollberg.
There are still some workers illegally camping around town, said Steins, and while some property owners don’t care, those who do ask the town for assistance in removing them.
Unfortunately, the town has been enforcing its bylaws and removing illegal campers, he added.
“It’s not a pleasant thing to do, to kick these kids out of a tent,” said Steins. “It’s not something I like to do.”
A 1997 land swap passed ownership of the Tent City property to the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, who promised to run it for seasonal workers for seven years, then review operations to study the viability of the campground.
It closed in 2005.
At the time, the town council was disbanded and no contingency plan was in place or prepared. Steins is optimistic the town will begin looking at the seasonal housing crunch this winter.
Steins listed several options to alleviate the housing problems.
The town could talk to Tr’ondek Hwech’in about reopening Tent City.
The two sides would need to discuss the costs of maintenance of the campground, including garbage collections, washroom upkeep and supervision, said Steins.
Dawson has a large unused area at the north end of town which could be used as a campground, he added.
Tent City became a sort of cultural experience for the seasonal workers, who often looked forward to returning to the makeshift community. That could be recreated for the benefit of Dawson, said Steins.
“These kids are engaged in the community, and everyone benefits from that,” he said.
“It’s not like they work, sit at home and keep their nose to the grindstone, and then split. They bring energy to the town.”
If people are willing to tent, it’s not a problem, but there also needs to be more rental properties, because roughing it is not for everybody, said Koski.
“Tenting can be hard,” she said. “I tented for three weeks when I first came up here and I worked two jobs. You don’t sleep — unless you enjoy that sort of thing — it’s wet and cold. Tenting sucks.”
But a lack of affordable accommodation won’t severely curtail the number of people heading to Dawson for summer work, she added.
“I don’t know anyone who’s said they won’t come back because of housing. People come up here fo