Chamber calls for housing action

It’s been more than a year since the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce made a series of recommendations on how to address the housing crisis.

It’s been more than a year since the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce made a series of recommendations on how to address the housing crisis.

Thirteen months later, not much has changed, said president Rick Karp. “We predicted last year that 2012 was going to be worse than ever, and it is,” he said.

Property prices and rental rates have never been higher, while vacancy rates, hovering around one percent, have never been lower.

“The city needs hundreds of new affordable rental units,” said Karp.

An uptick in public drunkenness, vandalism and panhandling in downtown Whitehorse is the result, he said. A recent survey conducted by the chamber found 60 per cent of businesses encountered these problems.

“It’s those that need the help, lashing out saying, ‘solve this problem, do something,’” said Karp.

Municipal and territorial governments have made some efforts to address the housing problem.

Last year the city, following one of the chamber’s recommendations, passed an incentive program of tax grants for developers looking to build rental units.

While Karp said he didn’t think that the city’s incentive program went far enough, his harshest criticism was reserved for the territorial government for botching the sale of lot 262.

The 10-acre parcel of land on the corner of Mountainview Drive and Range Road was put out for tender this spring.

It was supposed to be the Yukon Party’s centerpiece solution to the city’s affordable housing woes. Housing Minister Scott Kent frequently referred to the project while fending off opposition criticism during the last legislative sitting.

The lot was to be sold to the highest bidder on the condition that at least 30 affordable housing units be built on the land.

But by the time the tender closed on April 27 only two bids were received, one for $100 and the other for $10,000. Both bids were later disqualified, because they required that the government help pay for the affordable housing units.

Karp wouldn’t say if grants were needed to spur on private development. But with the territorial government still sitting on $13.5 million in federal affordable-housing money, he said there should be no shortage of funds for whatever scheme they come up with.

Territorial officials are now having informal discussions with developers to see why the process didn’t work, said Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government.

He couldn’t say when the government would release a new tender for the lot.

“I would assume that once we review the options and get senior management input and political input we’d have a set of marching orders and it would be more quick than slow,” he said.

In Karp’s view, the entire tendering system has to be revamped.

“The whole process around wasn’t really functional,” he said. “They listened yet they didn’t listen.

“The way the request for proposal was worded basically discounted anyone who was serious to put on a serious bid on developing something there.”

Done right, a deal with a developer would produce “300, not 30,” affordable rental units, said Karp.

“We have local developers who are ready to go on this to resolve this issue. We just need to do it.”

But with summer fast approaching, the window to build this season is closing soon.

“We have to do whatever it takes to get those units up. We have to restore the mobility in the housing market,” said Karp. “This is not something that we can ignore, this is something that we have to act on and we have to act on it quickly.”

Contact Josh Kerr at joshk@yukon-news.com

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