Apartment shortage frustrates would be Whitehorse residents

While Mission: Impossible III is playing in local theatres, the real-life version is playing out on city streets.

While Mission: Impossible III is playing in local theatres, the real-life version is playing out on city streets.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: find a cheap apartment in Whitehorse.

After eight months, Janelle Hardy is frustrated.

Born in Whitehorse, the 27-year-old single mom has been bunking with her parents while trying to find an affordable place to live with her three-year-old daughter Ellazora.

In September, Hardy was paying big-city rents in Toronto, where she was studying.

She looked forward to returning North, where she thought she could nail down a decent place to live.

“I said to myself, ‘Thank God, I can finally leave Toronto where apartments are so expensive,’” says Hardy.

“I was sure there would be lots of available places in Whitehorse and I could easily find something for a reasonable price in the downtown area.”

Now, she’s beginning to realize how impossible the mission is.

“I e-mailed at least 30 of my friends and acquaintances to see if they knew of anything,” she says.

“I then started checking the classifieds in both papers and calling people every day. I even went knocking on doors of houses I thought looked nice.”

She also put her own ad in the paper.

Four months later, Hardy is still living with her parents and doesn’t have a single promising lead.

She’s on four different waiting lists, but all those apartments are too expensive, she adds.

“It’s so frustrating. There is almost nothing out there. And the average price for a semi-decent one-bedroom place downtown is $800 to $1,000.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. There are people charging up to $750 for a just a room in their apartment. Can you imagine? It never used to be this expensive.”

And, it’s also possible nobody wants to rent to a single mother with a child, she says.

But Hardy’s not the only one scrounging to find an apartment.

According to the latest report by the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, the apartment vacancy rate for Whitehorse in March was 2.9 per cent — in 26 out of the 889 apartments surveyed — the lowest it has been since 1993.

As recently as 2004 there was a 7.5-per-cent vacancy rate.

The shortage has driven up rents for the first time in years, according to bureau of statistics information officer Gary Brown.

The cost of houses has also risen, and that might be driving people to apartments, thus pushing up rental rates as well, says Brown.

The median apartment rent has gone up 2.3 per cent since March 2005. It now sits at $675 a month.

The highest increase was in Takhini, where prices have climbed an average of $30 since last year.

The cause of the apartment shortage is a mystery, says Brown.

It’s especially puzzling because the population has remained stable.

This year, it hovered around 23,200. In 1993, the population was pegged at 23,100.

“It’s all speculation, but just looking around there hasn’t been a lot of apartments built in a long time,” he says.

However, the increased rents could be also be tied to higher fuel prices, he says.

George Royal is another unhappy hunter. After travelling around Thailand and Hong Kong for four months, he returned home and started scouting apartments.

He can’t find one.

He landed a job building log cabins and has been looking “hard core” for a place to live for the past two months.

“At first I was looking for a nice place to stay, but soon realized that I would have to settle for an apartment,” he says.

“Then I found out that all the apartments were full, and that’s basically when the reality rock fell on my head.”

Royal has primarily been staying with friends since he got back, but for one month he shared a trailer in Takhini for $300.

“It was a real shit hole,” he says. “There was no running water. The toilet was all cracked. The hot water tank leaked; the roof leaked. It was a real mess.”

Plus, there were thieves.

They broke into the trailer and ripped off his guitar, amp, DVD player, an Asian sword (obtained on his recent trip) and other stuff worth about $5,000.

“That’s Takhini territory,” he says.

“I’d pitch a tent no problem, but I can’t leave all my stuff in a campground. I need a place where I can lock the door.”

There’s no apartment shortage, just a lack of cheap places for low-wage folks to rent, said Doug Caldwell, spokesperson for Yukon Housing Corp.

“The complaints you hear are: ‘There are no apartments in my price range,’” says Caldwell.

“So that doesn’t mean the vacancy rate is low, high or in between, it means the people who are venting these concerns may not be in the right budget.”

Indeed, affordable apartments for low-income residents are extremely hard to find in Whitehorse.

Units at Skyline Apartments in Riverdale range from $640 to $700 a month. But manager Chris Hemmings says she has a waiting list of 35 people and gets at least 10 calls a day from people looking for a place.

“I get calls coming in from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m.,” she said. “Which means I’m going to stop answering my phone pretty soon. I’m not getting any sleep.”

Hemmings says she doesn’t even have time to do any repairs before renters walk in.

“I had two people who wouldn’t even wait until the end of the month to move in. It’s not easy because people are so desperate — there are tears and everything. It’s very difficult.”

The 111-unit Kontiki Apartments has been full since last year, said Jack Thompson, its manager.

“I get, on average, eight calls a day at end of month,” he says.

Down at the Barracks Apartments, manager Brian Paho has 35 units for $660 and 20 shared-accommodation rooms for $400.

There’s currently one apartment available, but Paho expects it to be filled in a day or two.

“I had a page and a half of people on a list that were all fighting with each other for a place in April,” says Paho.

So what else is left?

“I’ll be candid, the front few pages of the classifieds is probably the greatest indicator you’re going to have on what the market is,” says Caldwell.

But people have been disappointed with the classifieds because there really isn’t anything available in any price range, says Barbara Collins, who does property management at RE/MAX Action Realty.

“Rentals are really scarce,” she says. There’s a tremendous, tremendous shortage. I’ve had zero vacancy for the past three years.”

Because of the high demand, prices have gone way up, says Collins.

“A few years back, I never thought we could rent a house for $1,200 a month. Now I’ve got one up at Copper Ridge that I’m renting for $2,000.

“It’s because construction people can’t find anywhere to live.”

Collins says no one at her company can figure it out.

“The summers have always been bad, but even in fall and winter I’ll have rentals that become vacant and I’ll have around 35 to 40 calls.”

Eighteen-year-old Cavell MacRae hasn’t stopped calling people for more than a month.

He arrived in Whitehorse from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in January 2005 and found a receiving job at Staples.

He’s currently sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a garage in Golden Horn, which he shares with some friends because none of them can find anything to rent.

“We’ve been calling people every day,” he says. “There’s absolutely nothing out there. We’ll take anything. I don’t care where it is — Copper Ridge, Porter Creek — anything.”

Three of them are trying to get something for $1,500 but would be willing to pay up to $2,000, said MacRae.

“The worst case scenario, is that I will have to move back to Ontario,” he said.