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Yukon's housing plan long overdue

Lord knows our politicians love nothing more than to proclaim the existence of new strategies. These thick sheaves of paper are frequently called "action plans," although, more often than not, they seem to serve as a substitute for action.

Lord knows our politicians love nothing more than to proclaim the existence of new strategies. These thick sheaves of paper are frequently called “action plans,” although, more often than not, they seem to serve as a substitute for action.

For the record, the territory already has action plans and strategies for subjects as diverse as climate change, substance abuse, water management, corrections, social inclusion and poverty reduction, child and family wellness, employee recruitment and retention, healthy aging, education, physician recruitment, victims of crime, visual arts and crafts, hydro generation, mineral development, and ... well, you get the idea.

Add to this pile one for housing, too. It’s been more than two years in the making and is the product of consultations with 74 groups - if you pick the inflated number the territory touts, which lists every government body involved.

One funny thing about this strategy is that it’s been completed only after our government has decided to spent the windfall of federal housing cash it received more than a decade ago. You can be forgiven for thinking the planning could have started around the time this $17.5 million was received. That would have been nearly a decade ago, way back in 2006.

That could have helped set reasonable priorities for how to spend this housing cash. For instance, as we’ve noted here before, the Yukon Party promised during the last territorial election that it would use some of this money to build a new homeless shelter. Yet the government only announced the construction plans this spring, despite the fact that the territory was sitting on a pile of money set aside, in part, for this purpose.

There’s probably a clever reason for this foot-dragging, having to do with staging construction projects so that they occur around the same time as the next territorial election. But consider the real, human consequences. The Salvation Army’s existing shelter is routinely overcrowded during the winter months, forcing clients to sleep on the floor or in chairs. Many of these clients struggle with addictions, and could use all the support they can get.

Feel free to fill in your own description of the government’s dilly-dallying on that commitment. Crass? Inhumane? Cynical? All the above?

It’s also odd that the housing strategy laments the lack of meaningful data to assess some of Yukon’s housing problems, and sets targets to cobble together such stuff. Odd, because you would think that in the several years spent assembling this plan, somebody involved could have pulled a bit more information together.

You wouldn’t necessarily know this from reading the report, but a few years back the Yukon Housing Corporation hired economists to study the housing situation across the territory. The resulting report included some interesting facts, like that one in six Whitehorse residents struggle with housing affordability, with rental bills that eat up more than 30 per cent of pre-tax income.

Such facts do not appear in the new plan. Instead, we’re just told that a “key action” to be taken is to study rental housing data and make recommendations to address the gaps. In other words, it seems, re-do some work done three years ago.

In fairness, those numbers are worth refreshing. But couldn’t that have been done by now? And why no indication that such data even exist?

Here’s a hunch. That information led the housing corporation to craft a plan to help Whitehorse residents who struggle to pay the rent, and when the government later decided to deep-six this plan, it became a big public embarrassment. And who wants to be reminded of that?

This was the same plan that the housing corporation’s board received assurances from cabinet that they would have final say over, until they suddenly didn’t, because realtors had begun to holler that the sky would fall if the territory matched funds with developers to build some housing with rents held under the median for a decade.

The government has lately thrown a sop to renters, presumably to make up for this: those who meet income-tested requirements may receive a rent subsidy. Landlords needn’t know about the arrangement, lest they decide to abuse the situation and raise the rent accordingly. It’s estimated this program will help between 40 to 50 families over the next four years. It seems reasonable to assume it won’t make as big an impact as the earlier scheme. That’s sort of the whole idea.

The government is also giving money to landlords to clean up dingy apartments, with the ambitious goal of one day having the majority of rental units “legal and adequate.” This is not exactly shooting for the stars.

Government leaders will retort they’ve built their share of housing - catering particularly well to the elderly, but also to social housing clients, women fleeing violence and residents with cognitive impairments. This is all laudable. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that they have been in a position over the past decade to address some of the territory’s bigger housing challenges, and they simply haven’t felt inclined to do so.

At least, unlike some other government strategies, this one seems to have some concrete objectives and timelines. Such goals would have been reasonable for the government to set sometime not too long after the start of its term. The fact it’s only released near the end is an indication of how big a priority the underlying issues are for our political leaders. Not very.