Lower cost housing to be replaced by condos

Bart Butler is learning the hard way about the lack of affordable housing in Whitehorse. Butler, his wife and two young boys, along with 12 tenants…

Bart Butler is learning the hard way about the lack of affordable housing in Whitehorse.

Butler, his wife and two young boys, along with 12 tenants of other rental properties on Lowe Street, are being removed from their homes to make way for a luxury condo development.

The business partnership that sold the properties told tenants at the beginning of August they would need to be out of their soon-to-be demolished homes by September 30.

“It’s hard to find a place to move into with a family,” said Butler.

“Two months is good, but with the market the way it is, how do you find a place? And when you do, there’s a waiting list of a dozen people.”

The Hougen Group of Companies bought the six lots, making up an entire block from Lowe Street to Third Avenue, minus the Riverside Grocery store, from the partnership for an undisclosed sum.

Once built, the condos could carry a price tag of $400,000 to $500,000 per unit, according to the Hougen Group.

Butler and his family have lived in the house for two years. They pay $800 a month to rent the place, which includes the often costly heating.

The Hougen Group will take possession of the properties on October 1. While plans are still preliminary, the company expects to turn sod on the development in early summer 2008, said company director Erik Hougen.

“The condition of the properties is very poor, currently,” he said. “The owners would have to invest a lot of money into them just to maintain them and I guess they thought it was an appropriate time to sell.”

Only one month’s notice is required so two months’ notice should be sufficient for tenants, said Hougen.

“The reality is they’ve been given double the normal time of notice and that was important to us because the goal is not to disrupt people,” said Hougen.

“We were assured by the existing owners that they would do everything they could to assist people in finding the appropriate accommodations.”

If the company is not planning on building until next summer, Butler is wondering why the Hougen Group wouldn’t wait until then to give an eviction notice.

More time would mean his family would have a better chance to find appropriate accommodations, said Butler.

“I wish they’d wait until spring since they won’t be doing any construction over the winter, anyway,” he said.

Maurice Byblow and a partnership bought the six lots over a period of 16 years, beginning in 1986. He brought in partners to help acquire some of the properties with plans to develop the lots into condos.

Plans fell through and the partnership decided to sell to the Hougen Group.

“We were just at a stage where not one of us wanted to commit to a major development,” said Byblow. “It’s a big task. I’m very pleased a local group decided to buy and develop the lots.”

Tenants are a mix of young and old, professionals and families, he said. Rents are between $400 to $900 per month.

The tenants Byblow have spoken to have not expressed any anger or disappointment about the move, he said.

“They accept what’s happening and understand,” said Byblow. “Some are asking for assistance and some are saying, ‘Hey, I can work this out in the two months you’ve given.’ Nobody to my knowledge is upset. It’s a reality.”

Michael Nevile has run a consulting business in a converted house he rents from the partnership for the past five years.

“It’s the perfect location,” he said. “I was hoping to buy. I tried to four years ago but they figured they’d make more money selling (the lots) as a block.”

Office space is at a premium, and though he received his eviction notice only two weeks ago, Nevile said he’s “scrambling to find a good space downtown,” where most of his clients live.

There are large and small office spaces for rent, but “it’s the middle stuff that’s hard to find,” said Nevile.

If a space can’t be found in time, he’ll just have to swallow the cost of higher rent.

“I’ll probably end up spending $3,000 a month,” said Nevile. “I’ll have to look for a house downtown, but even those are few and far between.”

The number of condo starts have been rising since 2003, when only four units were under construction, according to the city.

In 2004, the number rose to 27, then to 36 in 2005. The number of condo starts jumped to 109 in 2006. To date in 2007, there have been 44 starts.

All of the condo starts were new buildings. There have not been any conversions from apartments to condos, though some rental properties were demolished and lots consolidated to make room for new condos.

The loss of low-cost rental properties has caught the attention of Whitehorse officials, said city planning manager Mike Gau.

“We’re seeing the loss of affordable housing in Whitehorse,” he said. “We need to look at that.”

“Affordability is a concern for housing in the city. The lower-cost rental units are being replaced by high-cost condos because of the market trends.”

The condo construction numbers are consistent with Whitehorse’s demographics, said Gau. An aging population is looking for low-maintenance and secure homes, he added.

The estimated purchase price for the Hougen condos is somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 for each of the possible 18 condo units. The size could be between 2,500 and 2,800-square-feet.

A revitalization of downtown Whitehorse has sparked interest in prime property, and the Hougen Group says these six lots are some of the best.

With a view of the SS Klondike, up and down the Yukon River and Grey Mountain, the piece of property is perfect to develop high-end condos, said Hougen.

The partnership has offered assistance to all 13 tenants in finding appropriate accommodations through Remax real estate agent, Darryl Weigand, one of the partners in the land deal, said Byblow.

“It’s the appropriate thing to do,” he said. “It’s an ethical, responsible thing to do.”

Three out of 13 have been in contact for assistance, he said.

The owners of Riverside Grocery, the lone property on the block not sold to the Hougen Group, said the real story about the land purchase is the displacement of responsible tenants.

“Ten years ago there were crack houses up the street,” said Leona Commons.

“Now they have nice tenants, and they’re displacing these nice tenants.”