Advocates for affordable housing have been left flummoxed and furious over the Yukon government’s decision to axe building plans in Whitehorse.
“We were totally amazed and extremely disappointed and disillusioned as well,” said Charlotte Hrenchuk, a co-chair of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.
Earlier this week the government aborted plans to help pay for 75 bachelor and one-bedroom apartments in the city if developers agreed to keep the rent at 95 per cent of the median level in the territory. The current median is about $900.
Brad Cathers, the minister responsible for the housing corporation, said he listened to input from private sector investors who told him government interference would hurt the market. The situation was getting better on its own, they said.
“Affordability is still an issue. It’s a very pressing issue for people who want to rent in Whitehorse – we know that the median rent has increased 18.3 per cent since 2009,” she said.
“We know that the median rent hit a record high in December of 2013 according to the bureau of statistics, and I don’t think much has changed since then.”
Hrenchuk said she was left “bewildered” by the government’s decision to back out of a plan it had designed itself.
“There was a set process to access this funding. Initially 22 proponents went after it, so obviously they thought it was worthwhile and of interest.”
That number was whittled down to five projects approved by the Yukon Housing Corporation’s board – two in the communities and three in Whitehorse.
Yukon Party cabinet, through its management board, cancelled only the Whitehorse projects.
Six two-bedroom units are still being built in Carmacks and two one-bedroom units will be built in Carcross.
That used up $1.3 million of the $13 million remaining in federal Northern Housing Trust money.
“This just shows the government’s total incompetence when it comes to dealing with the housing file,” said NDP housing critic Kate White.
“For months they’ve been saying ‘look, we’ve got these great things that are going to be happening in housing.’ They put out press releases talking about how fantastic they are and then they cancel everything with a press release.”
White calls the current situation “another Lot 262.” In 2012, the territory tried to sell that 10-acre lot to the highest bidder on the condition that at least 30 affordable housing units be built on it.
Only two bids came through and both offers were disqualified.
White said she hopes the remaining housing money goes to those with the greatest need. She says the now-cancelled program would have increased the number of units in the market but not helped those most in need: people who find even the median rent too high.
She hopes the powers that be “really finally hear what we’re missing for the housing continuum and we move forward with supportive housing. We move forward with actual affordable housing with rates set by CMHC. That we look towards ‘housing first’ models.”
Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis said he’d “be lying if I said I wasn’t extremely disappointed and I know, hearing from my council, that they’re also very disappointed it’s not moving forward.”
The mayor publicly voiced his support for the plan before it was cancelled.
He said he heard from a few people who disagreed with his stance, but many came forward and were looking forward to the plans.
“I’ve had a lot of people walk up to me being very supportive and very thankful that we’re going to be able to have some options for those people that are trying to get by.”
Liberal Leader Sandy Silver said the situation proves “the only thing that Yukoners can really count on is the Yukon Party saying one thing and doing another.”
He criticized Cathers for undermining the independence of the Yukon Housing Corporation’s board to make decisions.
As late as May 15, Cathers was in the legislature promising to stay at arm’s length from the decision-making process.
“I am leaving it to the staff of Yukon Housing Corporation and the members of the review committee and to the board to make that decision,” he said at the time.
“In fact, it will be the board of Yukon Housing Corporation making the final decisions. Management board approval that was required has been given and the money for the first portion of this is contained in the budget.”
Asked about those statements now, Cathers said he made a mistake.
“What happened is at that point in time the information I had in my briefing materials indicated that management board approval was not required at the end of the process, which is why I said what I did then. That was later clarified and corrected.”
Terry Bergen, a former president of the real estate association, said he is pleased with the government’s decision.
He admits that five years ago there was a problem.
“That 10-year period up until 2010 was when the real problems peaked,” he said. “Our demand just kept growing because we were very economically successful, but our supply was restricted all that time.”
Since then the supply has improved, he said. Hundreds of lots are ready to be built on and hundreds more could be made ready quickly.
“I’m not saying that rentals are cheap, but I’m saying that relative to the rest of Canada we are affordable,” he said.
The CMHC spring 2014 report listed the average rent of a two-bedroom unit in Whitehorse in 2013 at $955. The average price of renting a two bedroom apartment in Dawson Creek is $1,085 and in Fort St. John two bedrooms goes for $1,050.
Bergen said having a competitive market, where landlords compete for tenants and tenants look to pay as little as possible, is the best way to go.
“They’re going to provide the best product they can. So the only thing I think the government needs to do is keep the market competitive, keep land available, keep mortgages affordable so that people can go out and provide the product,” he said.
Both Cathers and Bergen point to the Brookside Development plan in Crestview as a sign that things are getting better.
For $349,000, you can buy a townhouse with a rental suite in the basement.
Co-owner Dale Best said the plan is to eventually build 120 total units, 80 of which will have a rental suite option in the basement.
Best said the developer took a year off building so it could reconfigure its plans to include more basement suites, because the first ones sold so quickly.
Right now six one-bedrooms are on the market, with all being rented for between $900 and $1,000 a month.
So far 11 of the 120 townhouses have been built. There’s no timeline for when all will be complete, Best said. That depends on how sales go.
He points out that the government was proposing to subsidize bachelor and one-bedroom units.
“I’m very pleased that they saw that we’re going to fill that part of the market without subsidizes, without tax dollars.”
Both the local real estate and landlord associations have said they look forward to working with non-profits to find housing solutions that work for everyone.
Contact Ashley Joannou at