Mike Tribes has a unique perspective on how tough it is to find housing in Whitehorse.
But it’s one that isn’t heard very often.
Tribes is a landlord – though one without the top hat, monocle and waxed moustache.
Dressed in a T-shirt and fleece jacket, Tribes doesn’t look like the villain that landlords are sometimes made out to be.
“We’re an easy group to point at – we’re capitalists,” he said.
Ten years ago, when Tribes first started renting places out, the housing market was “tight.”
In the last couple years it has gotten worse, said Tribes.
Currently, the vacancy rate is hovering around one per cent, up slightly from the recorded low of 0.6 per cent seen in the summer of 2010, but still well below historic levels. Since 2007, the median rent in Whitehorse has increased 15.4 per cent to $785 from $680.
The rental market is so hot that Tribes doesn’t bother advertising his apartments in the paper any more, too many people respond.
And those who do call him aren’t afraid to tell him how desperate they are.
“You get the mom with kids living in a place downtown that’s near drug dealers and they’re desperate to find a place to get out of there,” he said. “Stories like that, they’re heartbreaking.”
So heartbreaking, in fact, that Tribes sometimes offers to put people in his spare room.
“Basically, I’ll give them a month to find a place, short-term stuff,” he said. “I don’t want anything long term in my own house.” With the vacancy rate so low he’s never had a hard time filling his units.
“My philosophy is that I don’t want to rent out a place that I wouldn’t want to live in myself,” he said. “My rates tend to be a little lower, so that helps as well. I never had an issue with trying to fill a place.”
He rents to people with pets, with kids and some who are on social assistance.
Most of his renters have been model tenants.
His biggest gripe is with the housing allowance given to people on social assistance.
“SA rates are too low,” he said. “They’re well below market value.”
He could likely get more money for his places, but that would mean kicking vulnerable people out on the street, something he’s not willing to entertain.
“I have a single woman with two kids in a three-bedroom place and the maximum she’s allowed, with utilities included, is $1,200,” he said. I’m sure those places are going for $1,600, or more, but all I can charge her is $1,200, because that’s what SA will pay.”
The government also sends people who should be in supportive housing to the Lead Dog Hostel, which he owns.
“Social Assistance keeps bringing people over because that’s all there is,” said Tribes.
His staff isn’t trained to deal with the alcohol, the drug problems and the personality clashes that result.
“They just throw up their hands and call the police when there are problems,” he said. “It’s becoming an interim solution, but it’s an inappropriate solution.”
While Tribes doesn’t have the expertise to solve the city’s supportive housing problems, he has the experience and will to build more rental units.
Currently he has five houses with 12 units in total.
He’s looked into building a commercial rental building. He has the land, but can’t find a bank willing to finance the project.
“I went to every bank in Whitehorse and nothing,” he said. “They don’t fund that kind of thing.
“I could go the developer’s way, which is pre-sell condos that I’m planning on building, but that doesn’t solve the rental problem.
“Developers keep building condos that people can’t afford to live in if they’re low income.”
A government-sponsored initiative to provide financing for rental buildings might help, said Tribes.
“It would be nice if the government did something with their $18 million,” he said.
He feels tremendous sympathy for people struggling to find housing, but feels dismayed by attacks on landlords by people asserting they are taking advantage of the situation.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re a landlord, you’re trying to screw the First Nations and the poor people,” he said. “It just feels really unfair to be painted with that brush.
“This is my retirement fund, basically. I don’t have a government or corporate job with a retirement plan – this is my retirement plan.”
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