Whitehorse isn’t the only Canadian city to struggle through a housing crunch.
Airdrie, Alberta, faced a similar crisis a few years ago.
The Alberta town is about the same size as Whitehorse. And a couple of years ago it also experienced a shortage of affordable housing when commodity prices surged and the economy boomed.
Airdrie’s problems came to a head in July 2008, when oil prices reached a record $US147 a barrel.
“It was boom time in Alberta and rents were absolutely astronomical,” said Shelley Sweet, managing director of Airdrie Housing Limited.
With provincial funding, the city formed the nonprofit that year to combat the lack of affordable housing.
“The government of Alberta took a really aggressive approach with this because the boom was making appropriate housing very inaccessible for people,” said Sweet.
The nonprofit corporation was funded through municipal grants funneled through city from the provincial government, but it is set up as an independent organization.
“We have a board of directors, so we’re somewhat arm’s-length from the city,” said Sweet. “But we are administering funds that have come to the city on their behalf, and we’re very closely aligned with all of their key initiatives and their priorities.”
Airdrie Housing buys townhouses and condos around the city and rents them to people who meet its income threshold.
The rates it charges are about 10 per cent below market.
“It’s spread throughout the city in a very diverse way,” said Sweet. “The philosophy being there are a number of units all around the city purchased by this organization, but nobody knows necessarily if their neighbour is an affordable housing tenant, or not.”
So far, the nonprofit has purchased 12 condos, two townhouses and a 32-unit apartment building.
When they bought the apartment building, it was, “in danger of being converted into condominiums,” said Sweet.
“We wanted to keep it as rental housing,” she said. “We already had an extremely low rental pool.”
In Airdrie, just as in Whitehorse, a commercial rental apartment building had not been built for some time.
Almost all new multi-family buildings are sold as condos.
“While I think there’s some more rental opportunities with condominiums, the old notion of a building that’s just rental apartments doesn’t seem to exist anymore,” said Sweet. “Unless it’s built by social housing.”
The nonprofit also provides rent supplements of up to $300 a month for people in need who aren’t living in one of its units.
Providing affordable housing is vital for economic health, said Sweet.
“There are those people who are working out there in oil and gas, getting those higher salaries, but you also have an entire service industry in restaurants and retail markets that don’t get those kinds of wages, and never will,” she said. “You have to acknowledge that part of your population because they’re vital to making sure the economy works.”
In the last few years, Airdrie Housing has helped more than 300 people, said Sweet.
“We have testimonial after testimonial from people who were just struggling, but now they’re able to find some stability in their lives because they’re able to pay rent without having it hanging over their head every month and making a choice between rent or food.”
Setting up Airdrie Housing took $5.8 million in municipal grants, with an additional $3.2-million grant from the province to buy the apartment building.
The provincial program responsible for the seed money has expired, and Airdrie Housing now has to figure out how to sustain itself in the long term.
The board is considering a variety of fundraising options to keep itself afloat, said Sweet.
“Unfortunately, with the affordable housing situation you can’t really pass your costs on to your tenants – it would defeat the purpose,” she said.
When the recession hit and oil prices fell, the city got a reprieve.
But as prices creep up, the situation is far from certain.
“Vacancy rates can change on a dime,” said Sweet. “As soon as things pick up, and we’re already starting to see some of that, vacancy rates will go down to zero very quickly.”
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