Housing squeeze hurts businesses

After selling her house at the beginning of March, Joleen Fehr had no idea how difficult it would be to find an apartment to rent in Whitehorse. She gave herself until April 30th to find a place. If she couldn’t find one, the three-year-resident of the Yukon was going to leave.

After selling her house at the beginning of March, Joleen Fehr had no idea how difficult it would be to find an apartment to rent in Whitehorse.

She gave herself until April 30th to find a place. If she couldn’t find one, the three-year-resident of the Yukon was going to leave.

“I had my name on the list of every single apartment building in town,” she said.

“I got one call-back and that’s only because the landlord recognized (my partner’s) voice.”

When Fehr moved to Whitehorse from Prince George in 2007 she was able to find a place before she even arrived. And that was with her two cats in tow.

This time around, Fehr had to give away her cat of seven years before she could even be considered.

A customer at the Java Connection, where she has worked since moving to Whitehorse, saw how desperate Fehr was and managed to locate a basement suite for her at a friend’s place.

“There’s no living room and the place is tiny,” she said. But Fehr is happy she won’t have to leave the territory.

“Before I found the place I was telling myself I was either going to have to throw my cats off a bridge or go back to Fort St. John.”

Fehr’s story isn’t unusual.

When Miki Hanatani moved to Whitehorse from Banff this winter it took her and her family two months to find a place to live. It was faster for her to find work than to find housing.

While searching for a house to rent, Hanatani and her family lived at a bed-and-breakfast.

“Everything out there was too pricy or too small,” said Hanatani, who works at the Miles Canyon Historic Railroad Society.

Many of the ads in the newspaper were already taken by the time she phoned. And when she did manage to get a landlord on the line, more than once she was refused the place because she had a 15-month-old baby.

Finally, Hanatani and her family settled on a one-bedroom duplex in a neighbourhood they didn’t want to live in.

“We’re still looking for a new place,” she said.

But the problem of housing isn’t only affecting employees, it’s also hitting businesses hard, said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp.

One of the key issues to arise at an economic summit last month was housing, said Karp.

“Amongst employers in retail, service and information technology, the number one issue that went across all sectors was the need for more housing,” he said.

“We must provide affordable housing to people – not just low-income housing – but reasonable accommodations.”

The housing shortage has been a problem in Whitehorse for the past three years, said Karp. “Three years ago we literally ran out of land.”

The lack of housing means people like John Robertson, general manager of the High Country Inn and the Gold Rush Inn, are having a hard time staffing their businesses.

“We’ve got staff now that are desperate to find a home,” he said.

“There’s staff looking to crap out (of their job) because they can’t find anything.”

Between the two hotels, Robertson counts 12 staff members who are looking for a place to settle down. Most of those people have just moved up to the Yukon, he said.

Staff can live temporarily at the hotel for a couple weeks at a time. But during the peak season the hotels don’t have any extra rooms to spare for staff.

Housing was a prominent issue at a Tourism Industry Association conference this week.

“The number one issue is finding staff and the number two issue is finding accommodations for them to live in,” said Robertson.

“It’s a huge, huge issue right now.”

Infill development is the fastest way to make new rental properties available, said Karp.

Housing on the lower Porter Creek Bench won’t be available for another couple years, so providing infill housing, particularly downtown, is essential, he said.

“The city needs to create incentives for developers to put up more (apartment buildings and condominiums) so the rental market can be facilitated.”

The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition in conjunction with the Yukon Bureau of Statistics is circulating a housing survey to determine the adequacy of current housing available in Whitehorse.

That survey can be accessed at Yukon Learn during office hours until May 14.

Contact Vivian Belik at vivianb@yukon-news.com

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