Fentie withheld housing money: Kenyon

Amid Whitehorse's severe housing pinch, the Yukon government is sitting on nearly $18 million in affordable housing money, which remains unsigned and unspent several years after its receipt from Ottawa.

Amid Whitehorse’s severe housing pinch, the Yukon government is sitting on nearly $18 million in affordable housing money, which remains unsigned and unspent several years after its receipt from Ottawa.

“I think that’s quite atrocious,” said Ross Findlater, co-chair of the Yukon Antipoverty Coalition.

“That’s money provided specifically for lower-income Yukoners to get adequate, safe housing. If that’s being, for whatever reason, diddled around or withheld, I think that’s very poor leadership.”

Jim Kenyon disclosed this bombshell shortly after being fired last week by Premier Dennis Fentie. Kenyon held several cabinet posts, including housing minister.

The Yukon received $17.5 million between 2008 and 2010 from the Northern Housing Trust. With interest, that money now totals $18 million, said Kenyon.

David Hrycan, Yukon’s deputy minister of finance, confirmed this money remains unspent.

“That’s still sitting there,” he said. It hadn’t yet been spent because “there has been so much other money flowing in from Canada,” said Hrycan.

But Kenyon had no shortage of ideas of how to spend the housing money. He wanted to spend about $3 million to leverage enough cash to add another 18 units to Options for Independence, a group that supports Yukoners with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

But Fentie, the Finance minister, said no, said Kenyon.

“When the Finance minister doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t get done.”

Kenyon never received an explanation why the money was withheld, he said. But he suspects it was kept so the territory’s savings account didn’t run dry.

Fentie, who will be replaced as the Yukon Party’s leader on May 28, declined to comment.

“It’s absolutely incredible that they’re still sitting on this money,” said Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell. “It’s callous. It’s almost criminal. All to create the illusion of a surplus.”

Ottawa provided the housing trust funds with few strings attached except it had to be spent on affordable housing projects. There’s no deadline to spend it.

Subtract the housing trust funds from the territory’s bank account, and government’s anticipated $38 million surplus for this year shrinks almost by half, noted Mitchell.

Blame shouldn’t be reserved for Fentie, said Mitchell. The rest of cabinet share responsibility for letting Fentie withhold the housing money.

“People like Elaine Taylor and Patrick Rouble and Brad Cathers – who was in cabinet at the time – need to explain to Yukoners why they made this decision. They’re all in it together.”

“It’s building season,” said the NDP’s Steve Cardiff. “Winter will be here all too soon.

“If there’s $17.5 million that hasn’t been spent, how can they, in good conscience, say they’re doing a good job on the housing file?

“They’re not entitled to it unless they’re using it for housing. They can’t use it to balance the books.”

There are plenty of social housing proposals waiting to be built. And the Yukon government already owns land to build it: most underused lots in southern downtown Whitehorse are owned by the Yukon Housing Corporation, according to city planners.

The Northern City Affordable Housing Coalition wants to build a 20-unit facility to help Yukon’s homeless, hardcore alcoholics.

A territorially sponsored report released this spring by Dr. Bruce Beaton and Chief James Allan calls on the government to build a downtown homeless shelter with an attached detoxification unit.

Others have called for the construction of a downtown youth shelter.

“These people have been stonewalled and roadblocked,” said Mitchell. “It’s all about, ‘We don’t have the money.’ Well, they’ve been sitting on the money. I’m outraged.”

As of April 30, 149 Whitehorse residents were queued up for social housing. With a near-zero vacancy rate in the capital, the economy heating up from the mining boom, and landlords shuttering low-income apartments, it’s probably only going to become more difficult for poor Yukoners to find affordable housing.

In March, the Roadhouse Inn’s rental suites closed, leaving 23 low-income Yukoners in the lurch.

Riverdale’s new, 32-unit affordable housing complex for single parents cost $8.2 million. Using that as yardstick, the territory may be able to build more than twice as much with its av ailable funds.

City councillor Ranj Pillai wants to see the territory earmark the withheld money before the end of the summer building season.

“Let’s get our act together and start planning,” he said. “I just need to know what we’re doing now. Let’s get to the table, as soon as possible.”

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