Another government plan, another missing price tag

Tell us if this is starting to sound familiar. The Yukon government has an important announcement to make. A news release is duly issued, and maybe big wigs are assembled to deliver some canned comments.

Tell us if this is starting to sound familiar. The Yukon government has an important announcement to make. A news release is duly issued, and maybe big wigs are assembled to deliver some canned comments to reporters. The usual puffery and some cursory details are offered, yet something odd is missing: the price tag.

Such is the case with the territory’s plans to partner with the Ta’an Kwach’an Council to build 42 affordable housing units in Whistle Bend. At a news conference staged last week, journalists asked some simple, straightforward questions: How much will the thing cost? How big a share will the Yukon government pay? And how much will tenants be expected to pay for rent?

To which, the minister responsible and First Nation representatives basically shrugged their shoulders. What, you expect a funding announcement to be accompanied by some numbers?

This brings to mind another recent announcement by the territory, about how it plans to build a fibre-optic cable up the Dempster Highway in order to help create a big loop that will provide back-up Internet service in the event of renegade backhoe operators once again digging up our existing data pipe. In this case, as well, the price remains a mystery.

We’ll admit to being a bit bewildered by this. Has it suddenly gone out of style for politicians to ascertain the cost of big infrastructure projects before announcing they will commence? You may recall that a Yukon Party minister once quipped, on an unrelated matter, that “the numbers don’t matter.” Is this attitude now being applied more broadly, to how the Yukon’s $1-billion share of federal treasure is dispersed?

A more charitable explanation is that the Yukon government does have an early sense of how much these projects will cost, but it doesn’t want to say. The cost of big projects do tend to rise, after all, and political leaders rarely enjoy learning that their department has missed its target, and enjoy still less when the public gets wind. But the current approach simply creates the public impression that cost is no concern to this government when it comes to its infrastructure projects.

At least, following the housing project’s announcement, an official with the Yukon Housing Corporation was able to specify that rents would be set at the median for Whitehorse, which is currently $950.

The housing corporation is also touting another program it offers, aimed at Yukoners who struggle to pay the rent. It allows clients to pay 25 per cent of their monthly income, with the government covering the rest. But it seems a little misleading to play up this program when it existed well before the new housing project was announced, and it’s available to all renters, not just those who find themselves in the new housing project.

It’s understood that most of the proposed housing units would be used by the First Nation as housing for its citizens. The remainder of the units would be rented to the public. As with so much else having to do with the project, this ratio remains unknown for now.

Notwithstanding the lack of basic information about the project, it’s a good thing the Yukon government is helping to build more affordable housing in Whitehorse. It’s also a good thing that a local First Nation has been roped into being a partner, and probably a clever bit of political maneuvering too.

After all, it wasn’t long ago when the Yukon government pitched the idea of it partnering with a developer to build affordable housing in Whitehorse, with the government pitching in money in exchange for rents being tied to the median. You may recall this prompted howling from local realtors and others who loudly proclaimed that this scheme would trigger the collapse the city’s rental property market, hurting all kinds of mom-and-pop operators.

Funny how those concerns are not being aired now. What’s changed? Well, instead of the government planning on offering money to a private developer, it’s giving money to a First Nation development corporation. You could view this as merely trading one for-profit venture for another. But a First Nation does have some social mandate to help house its members, while private developers are more easily cast as fat cats simply seeking to turn a profit. But if you were upset about the government subsidizing a development that competed against existing landlords, that’s what this project amounts to as well, since most Ta’an Kwach’an citizens reside in Whitehorse.

It’s also worth noting that while the initial project aimed to spending federal affordable cash in the most efficient way, by encouraging developers to bid on the project and awarding the money to the best proposal. By contrast, the current arrangement was prepared in secret, with no opportunity for other developers to compete, just like the government’s decision to hire Northwestel to build and run the new fibre line.

Will the government receive good value for money through its affordable housing investment? It’s pretty clear that, as things stand, it doesn’t know.

We’re probably also hearing no caterwauling from critics this time around because the new affordable housing scheme is considerably smaller than the original project, which was envisioned to include 75 units. All the shrieking about how adding these units would prove catastrophic to landlords never seemed terribly plausible, given how it would amount to a small addition to the city’s overall number of rental units. But those who kicked up such a big fuss can now rest assured that only about half as many Whitehorse residents who have trouble paying the rent will end up being helped now.