Dawson’s housing doldrums

The Yukon School of Visual Arts is desperately seeking housing for its new crop of students. It's a perennial problem, not only for the art school, but for all of Dawson City said, Eldo Enns, SOVA's acting administrator.

The Yukon School of Visual Arts is desperately seeking housing for its new crop of students.

It’s a perennial problem, not only for the art school, but for all of Dawson City said, Eldo Enns, SOVA’s acting administrator.

“Our students come up at the end of the summer, typically just before the seasonal workers disappear, so we have that interim period in September where it gets a little tricky because things haven’t opened up completely, and there are people looking for housing for the winter,” he said.

But prospective students shouldn’t be discouraged, said Enns.

“If you come to Dawson we will find you a place to stay,” he said.

In past years, the art school has had to rely on the generosity of Dawsonites who have opened their homes to SOVA students.

“It’s that kind of generosity, from our perspective, that enables us to go forward,” said Enns.

The school has looked at the possibility of creating its own residence. Most recently the old Korbo apartment building was considered, until the Yukon Housing Corporation decided to tear it down because of the expense to clean up the land underneath the building, which had been contaminated by a fuel spill.

When SOVA was founded five years ago, the ultimate goal was to create a four-year degree-granting university, said Greg Hakonson. He designed the SOVA building and was one of the “founding fathers” of the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, which created the art school.

It was an economic art initiative, he said.

“If we could succeed it would mean something like 450 to 300 new people in Dawson, which is equivalent to a small hardrock mine,” said Hakonson. “The big difference is it’s not boom/bust.”

However, with the school struggling to house just 17 students, the dream of expanding could be in jeopardy.

“To me that’s pretty stupid that (the government) would invest so many millions into it and then not invest the little bit more required to make it succeed,” said Hakonson.

It’s not just art students who have trouble finding shelter. Dawson City, like almost every community in the Yukon, is facing an acute lack of affordable housing.

To tackle the issue, the town, along with the Dawson City Chamber of Commerce, Klondike Visitors Association and the Klondike Institute of Arts joined together.

Following the recommendations of the Klondike Development Organization, the town set some vacant land aside and put out a request for proposals for an affordable housing project.

Hakonson’s company, Low Impact Development, won the tender.

It put together a plan to build six small 500-square-foot bungalows priced at $120,000 or less.

“We weren’t going to make any kind of decent money on it,” said Hakonson. “This was more or less something we wanted to do for the community.”

It only took them a couple days to sell all the units. “We had to turn two people away,” he said.

The town initially approved the plans, but last spring it shelved the project “out of the blue,” said Hakonson.

The town said the lot it had chosen wasn’t zoned properly, and that the development contravened Dawson’s Official Community Plan.

As far as Hakonson knows it’s the first time that the town has killed a project because of conflict with the OCP.

“I’m pretty sure it’s the only time they’ve ever pulled that cat out of the bag,” he said.

As of press time, Mayor Peter Jenkins couldn’t be reached for comment.

Hakonson invested $15,000 of his own money in the project and still has several months left on the development contract that he signed with the city.

He could apply to amend the OCP, but that’s a long process. And with Dawson currently rewriting the OCP and municipal elections right around the corner, Hakonson is opting to wait.

The new revamped OCP has already passed first reading at town council and there is a public hearing on the plan scheduled for Sept. 10.

Acting on the recommendations that came from the OCP planning process would be a good start to solving the housing problem, said Wayne Potoroka, a town councillor who is running for mayor in October.

“We have to establish a favourable environment for all types of housing stock, not just student housing, but all types of housing,” he said.

“We need a plan. The future will be on top of us before we know it, and in some cases it has already sort of rolled us over.”

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