by Charlotte Hrenchuk
and Bill Thomas
It is hard to know where to start when responding to Yukon government’s decision to pull back funding to help build affordable, multi-unit rental housing in Whitehorse. Ultimately, members of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition are disappointed, disillusioned and dismayed that 75 units of potential affordable housing will not be built.
It is hard to know where to start for a number of reasons. This last-minute decision was made even though there is a demonstrated need for the housing in question. This last-minute decision was made even though there is a demonstrated need for incentives for the private sector to build affordable, multi-unit rental housing. This last-minute decision was made even though an open process was in place to evaluate and choose the most appropriate projects. This last-minute decision was made by cabinet, not by the Yukon Housing Corporation’s board, and is based largely on input from two stakeholder groups. It boggles the mind.
It’s important to be clear that the Yukon Housing project was never going to meet the needs of the lowest income earners in Whitehorse. That being said, members of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition recognize there is a pressing need for multi-unit, quality, affordable rental accommodation to be available to Whitehorse citizens.
The facts are clear – median rents hit a record high in December as stated in the latest Yukon Bureau of Statistics monthly update. Median rents have risen 18.3 per cent since 2009. Wait lists for rent geared to income housing provided by Yukon Housing and the Grey Mountain Housing Society add up to at least 175 files (not individuals) as of February. People need more affordable housing options.
It is disingenuous to suggest that the market has responded to this need. In fact, developers and private industry have stated for years that it is cost prohibitive to build multi-unit rental accommodation. Yukon Housing’s attempts in the spring of 2012 to have affordable housing built on Lot 262 on Range Road demonstrated that in spades.
In fact, as far as we know, there has not been a multi-unit rental building built by a private enterprise since those built on Cook Street about a decade ago. Given that Yukon Housing received 22 proposals through a very public request process from private contractors and non-profits last fall, one could assume both the interest and the need were there.
We know it has been lucrative for the private sector to build condominiums and town houses. And we understand that. We also know that owners and landlords will charge what the market will bear. That is why more housing options are needed for people who cannot afford the market price.
The stories that the anti-povery coalition was hearing six years ago when we started our housing task force have not changed. We are still hearing from people who can’t find housing, who can’t afford housing or who are living in difficult or unsafe situations. We are hearing from people who are not looking to buy a house, but who want a safe and affordable place to rent. We are hearing not only from people working at low-paying jobs, or on social assistance, but young people with new jobs. Families. New residents. New Canadians. People who want to live and work in Whitehorse but are living in their car, in a tent, on a couch or with other families in order to make ends meet.
Would these proposed 75 units have filled the variety of housing needs in Whitehorse? No, they wouldn’t. Would they have caused the market to shift? Probably a little. Would some Whitehorse residents have had better housing because of it? We think so. Is it the job of Yukon Housing to help ensure residents have more and better housing options? We believe it is.
So, now that this project is dead, there is still $11.5 million plus interest sitting in the Yukon government’s general revenues for affordable housing. And who knows what the next steps will be or how much longer we will have to wait for new affordable housing stock to be built.
Apparently the Yukon Real Estate Association and the Yukon Landlords Association will be involved in deciding how this money should be spent. Obviously we would hope those in need of the housing in question will be a part of the decision making as well.
Given how this decision was made, we’re not holding our breath.
Charlotte Hrenchuk and Bill Thomas are co-chairs of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.