Time for a roof raising

Tackling a housing shortage is not easy. The issue is huge, with many angles. And it affects us all. Home buyers and renters face huge costs. Business and public-sector managers looking to hire...

Tackling a housing shortage is not easy.

The issue is huge, with many angles.

And it affects us all.

Home buyers and renters face huge costs. Business and public-sector managers looking to hire new employees are being hampered by the lack of decent accommodation.

And the poor have it worse.

The impoverished fellow is now probably using his food money to cover his rent, or he’s trading down to something grubbier. The single mother who’s just had her rent pushed beyond reach is doing the same.

So is it any wonder that, in April, the Whitehorse Food Bank Society was helping to feed 1,300 people a month – more than double the expected demand when it opened two years ago.

And this during a boom. Why? Well, the lack of housing is probably exacerbating the problem.

It also impacts on health care.

Imagine you fall ill, lose your job and then your house. What next? You could find yourself trying to recuperate in a small apartment amid several new roommates. If you’re lucky.

And, if you happen to own a bed-and-breakfast, or rental property, you might find yourself confronted with people in dire straits, often with mental or physical impairments, looking for a place to stay. Why? Because the government hasn’t got enough supportive housing and it’s pushing the issue onto the private sector, which is not equipped to deal with it.

Fair? Probably not.

There was money to deal with some of these things. But, instead, the government elected to hoard $18 million in housing money to make the territory’s finances look better.

A good decision? Probably not.

But it’s one we’re living with today.

And the resulting crisis is not only hurting the poor, but it is stifling economic growth.

Employers, public and private, are struggling to recruit talent in the face of the shortage.

And that executive who was just landed her dream job could find herself sharing a cramped flat with two other people. And will probably pay a ridiculous amount for the privilege.

They aren’t likely to stick it out. If they’re talented, they’ll leave. And local managers have found themselves struggling to fill the position. Again.

So we’re all feeling the effects – a 1.2 per cent vacancy rate. The current crisis is the great equalizer. Something we all agree is a problem.

And there are culprits.

More of us are buying homes, because the territory is a wealthy place and interest rates are low.

The houses are getting bigger. The infrastructure is getting more elaborate and expensive.

Alongside that, dithering and mistakes on the part of the city and Yukon government led to a shortage of housing lots.

The city turned to infill to solve the problem, but lacked the leadership to convince people to allow it in their neighbourhoods, or the political courage to do it anyway.

Then a global economic collapse shook loose a pile of stimulus spending, which pulled a lot of our contractors into government projects, driving up the cost of labour and materials.

And that stimulus spending was piled on a heady mining rush, which was calling people north.

That, coupled with a less transient population, simply made an already tight housing problem much worse.

And on it goes.

So how do we fix it?

That’s not easy.

In the case of apartments, the banks are not that willing to bankroll such projects. They prefer condos, which are less risky because they are sold in advance.

If the government regulates rents, landlords might stop offering flats. If the government builds housing, the private sector is less likely to invest in it.

And, if you rush to build more houses, you could cause a glut, screwing the market the other way.

All this is made more difficult because building houses and apartment complexes takes time, so the effects of decisions today take a while to materialize.

But just because the problem is tricky, it shouldn’t lead to operational paralysis.

There are things we can do.

Airdrie, Alberta, faced similar problems and came up with some innovative fixes. Maybe Whitehorse and the territory should buy the Westmark Klondike Inn, adding its 100, or so, rooms to our social housing stock.

And the territory might consider broadening its singleminded focus on seniors’ housing to offer something to younger citizens who need assisted living.

The city should start raising taxes on vacant lots. And it must find a way to reintroduce a stipulation on new lots it sells that construction must begin within two years.

Whitehorse residents will have to reimagine their neighbourhoods, and become more accommodating to development in their backyards. After all, higher population density prevents destruction of outlying wilderness, while making the whole city much more efficient.

The bottom line: there are no quick or simple fixes.

We’re all affected by this problem, we all bear some responsibility for creating it and it will take all of us, working together, to fix it.

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