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Affordable housing money headed to home energy efficiency rebates

The Yukon government has another plan to spend money earmarked for affordable housing on other purposes. The territory received $17.5 million in 2006 from Canada.

The Yukon government has another plan to spend money earmarked for affordable housing on other purposes.

The territory received $17.5 million in 2006 from Canada “to meet short-term pressures with regard to the supply of affordable housing in the North,” according to documents provided by the federal Department of Finance.

In June the Yukon government cancelled a much-touted project at the last minute that would have seen 75 new affordable apartments in Whitehorse, after criticism from the Yukon Real Estate Association and the Yukon Residential Landlord Association.

Developers, who had spent tens of thousands of dollars planning those units, were left in the lurch.

This week the Yukon government announced that $1.4 million of the unspent money will go to homeowners who want to upgrade their homes with energy-efficient doors, windows and walls, or with solar, wind, hydro, biomass or geothermal generators.

Instead of helping Yukoners who are struggling to make rent each month, this money will support instead residents who have enough money to pay the mortgage and save up for pricey renovations.

The Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce has been calling for the Yukon government to support the construction of more affordable rentals for years.

In October, the Whitehorse and Yukon chambers of commerce jointly wrote to Brad Cathers, the minister responsible for the Yukon Housing Corporation, urging them to spend the housing trust money on affordable housing.

“We find it perplexing that a debate continues as to whether or not there is a shortage of affordable housing in the Yukon,” according to the letter.

“We want to emphasize that a target population (beyond social and senior housing needs) exists in the territory and does not have access to affordable housing.”

A chamber survey of fast food restaurants found that 300 Yukoners are working for about $12 an hour.

“When we include other low-income employees in the services, retail and tourism sectors the numbers increase significantly. It is this group that is in need of affordable housing.”

Yukon’s median rental rate for buildings with three or more units is at a record high of $900 a month, according to the most recent government statistics.

The vacancy rate on apartments that rent for $1,000 a month or less is just 2.3 per cent.

“Some months ago, the (Yukon Housing Corp.) embarked on an initiative to create more affordable housing in partnership with the private sector,” the letter from the chambers reads.

“There is no need to reiterate both chambers’ disappointment with the program’s subsequent cancellation, however its fallout has a substantial negative impact on business and has resulted in eroded trust regarding government process.”

The letter also expresses support for energy-efficiency rebate programs, but that doesn’t mean the chambers support spending the housing trust money that way, said Whitehorse chamber president Rick Karp in an interview this week.

“The letter really addresses the fact that the (housing trust) money should be used for affordable housing, affordable rental.”

Many low-income Yukon families are spending 50 per cent of their incomes on rent, far more than the 30 per cent considered affordable by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, said Karp.

“There is a significant sector of low-income families that need to have affordable rental apartments.”

In the legislature this week, Energy Minister Scott Kent simultaneously lauded the energy-efficiency rebate program and belittled its significance.

“We can’t think of a better way to invest less than three per cent of that original funding envelope to assist homeowners to bring their monthly payments down.”

To arrive at that three per cent figure, Kent is counting the $32.5 million that was allocated to First Nations directly for affordable housing projects, in addition to the $17.5 million granted to the Yukon government.

NDP Housing critic Kate White said in an interview that she would support the efficiency rebates if the money was taken from government coffers, not from the housing trust.

“Energy retrofitting is an important step towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions and all the rest of it,” she said.

“But to take the money out of an affordable housing trust fund is disgraceful.

“If this is their solution to affordable housing, the future is bleak.

“Right now the Yukon Party is playing Grinch. They haven’t found their heart yet, and they’re continuing to steal presents.”

The Canadian government did not put strict limits on how the housing trust money should be spent, but it did specify that the focus should be on increasing the supply of affordable rental stock.

So far, the Yukon government has allocated $4.5 million for transitional housing at Betty’s Haven, $3 million for a planned Salvation Army shelter expansion, $300,000 for Habitat for Humanity housing projects, and $1.4 million for eight affordable rental units in Carmacks and Carcross.

With the $1.4 million announced this week, that leaves about $7 million still sitting unused.

The government has not said if it will revisit the possibility of supporting the construction of new affordable rentals in Whitehorse.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at