Builder speaks out over affordable housing cancellation

Antonio Zedda says he never would have applied to build affordable housing in Whitehorse had he known the project could have gone this way.

Antonio Zedda says he never would have applied to build affordable housing in Whitehorse had he known the project could have gone this way.

He was forced to watch in silence as landlords and real estate agents spoke out at the last minute against a government plan to build rentals, a plan that had been public since last year.

He’d been told he was approved by the housing corporation for funding to build rentals in Whitehorse, but contractually he couldn’t say anything until the final details were worked out.

He’s not under that contractual obligation anymore.

Zedda is a partner in Kobayashi and Zedda Architects Ltd., a Whitehorse-based architecture and planning firm. It was one of three builders approved by Yukon Housing Corporation to build some of the 75 affordable rentals in Whitehorse.

The project was cancelled at the eleventh hour by the Yukon government, leaving Zedda and two other developers burned.

“Why would I waste my time and my money knowing that somebody is going to change their mind after all this process is completed?” Zedda said yesterday.

“We entered into these things with the understanding and the assumption that this is going to happen. If someone had said, ‘Well, we’re not quite sure this is going to go ahead’ … I would have never submitted in the first place.”

Zedda is the first of the three developers involved in the cancelled project to speak publicly about what could have been.

He was planning to build on the motorways site across from the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

The three-storey building would have had 27 one-bedroom units. Three of those apartments would have been wheelchair accessible.

According to a package that had already been prepared on the project, rents would have been set at $795.

The housing corporation was prepared to cover $2.5 million of the $6 million construction budget, he said.

Zedda said he never received any formal word from the government that the project, which he had spent $20,000 on, had been cancelled.

“I didn’t hear from the housing corp. and I didn’t hear from the government, at least not formally. Like I said, I didn’t receive a letter from anybody saying, ‘We regret to inform you that…’ I got nothing from anyone,” he said.

In October 2013, the Yukon Housing Corporation released a request for qualifications, asking businesses and non-profits for ideas to develop affordable rentals.

Two months later 22 proponents came forward with ideas. Nine proponents with projects in four communities advanced to the next step, a request for proposals, in February of this year.

Of those, the housing corporation’s board approved five. In the end, the government cancelled three projects for Whitehorse that would have made up 75 apartments. Two projects in the communities were approved.

The process that led to the selection of the affordable housing plans was well-publicized and open to everyone, Zedda points out.

“We spent a ton of time, a considerable amount of our own money, our own time, to do this, with the understanding that this was going to be a real project.”

He denies claims by realtors and landlords that with time the rental rates will correct themselves.

“This isn’t a recent demand, we’ve been having this need for affordable housing at least acutely for the last five years. The vacancy rate proves that there’s a huge demand out there.”

If he’d been given the green light, Zedda said construction could have started before the end of the summer. The building would have been up by sometime mid-summer next year.

Zedda maintains that government incentives are the only way to get affordable housing built.

Unlike condos, that can be built and sold off individually, rentals take longer to be profitable since you’re only earning small amounts every month, he said.

“Why most people are building condos instead of apartments is because there’s a return there that’s been reasonable. You’re in and out in a short period of time. You know what you’re going to make and you can move on and do something else with it.”

Concerns that these rentals would have harmed other landlords and flooded the market don’t hold water with Zedda either.

“Really, the demographic that we were catering to has very little impact on existing apartment owners. We were catering to a market that’s just not being dealt with by anyone.”

As a business owner, he says he’s seen the need first-hand. That’s why he decided to get involved.

“Between my different companies I have about 50 employees and we were having a really hard time finding accommodations for those employees and it had an impact on whether we could actually keep the employees,” he said.

“Our whole idea was based on the fact that we wanted to do something downtown and we wanted to do something that provided small, affordable units that would be geared to the demographic that were my employees, whether they be in the cafe at Baked, whether they be in the construction company, whether they be here in the office for Kobayashi and Zedda, like summer students.”

The public perception that landlords will just turn around and “condo-ize” their rentals as soon as the 10-year window is done, is also a mistake, Zedda said.

“I don’t think I can condo-ize the units that I was proposing. My units are 350 square feet. The building hasn’t been designed to be a condo building, it’s been designed to be an apartment building.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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