‘Ivory tower’ MLAs shrug off housing crisis

Barb La Chapelle shares a home with her daughter and granddaughter. “She’s living here because there are no affordable places out…

Barb La Chapelle shares a home with her daughter and granddaughter.

“She’s living here because there are no affordable places out there,” said the manager of Riverdale’s Sternwheeler Village.

The complex has 49 three-bedroom townhouses and many are rented to families on social assistance, she said.

Some of the Sternwheeler townhouses used to be part of the government’s social housing program, said La Chapelle.

When she took over the management in 2005, she wrote Yukon Housing to suggest that many of the townhouses be added to its rent-supplement program.

The program charges tenants one quarter of their annual income in rent and makes up the difference.

Yukon housing wasn’t receptive, said La Chapelle.

A year later, she approached the government again.

Nothing happened.

“I was trying to get 10 or 20 units signed up with Yukon Housing,” she said.

“To make it affordable for people.”

La Chapelle’s units rent for $850 a month.

That’s cheap for a three-bedroom townhouse, she said.

“But you don’t need to charge more than that.

“There are so many families that can’t find housing — it doesn’t make sense to up the rent just because the market allows for it.”

La Chapelle’s townhouses are full.

On social assistance, a single parent with one child gets $525 a month for the rent, she said.

“You can’t find anything suitable that’s going to be a healthy place for a child for that kind of money.

“That’s why my daughter lives here with me.”

La Chapelle’s daughter is on the government’s social housing wait list.

“Somehow the city has to come up with more affordable housing, because the wait list is phenomenal,” she said.

Yukon Housing has a mandate to build affordable housing, said NDP leader Todd Hardy on Thursday.

“It’s written right on the front (of the building), but they haven’t built a single thing in years that would address low-income housing — it’s a shame.”

There are currently 113 individuals and families on the waiting list, said Yukon Housing’s senior program advisor Don Routledge on Thursday.

The hopeful tenants are given priority based on a number of variables, he said.

First priority goes to victims of violence and abuse, followed by those who lived in rural Yukon and were forced to relocate for health reasons.

Yukon Housing gets $4 million in funding annually to maintain and operate its social housing programs.

It has 380 units in Whitehorse and another couple of hundred in nine Yukon communities.

In Whitehorse, 45 of the units are part of the rent-supplement program. Yukon Housing owns the remaining 335 units.

Even if landlords, like La Chapelle, applied to become part of the rent-supplement program, there isn’t funding available, said Routledge.

“Right now, we’re working on an operating budget that includes the 45 rent-supplement units, so we don’t have a whole lot of flexibility,” he said.

“But we would always be open to listening to what properties could be available.

“And right now the priority on our dollars is to upgrade 29 of the units (owned by Yukon Housing.)

“We want to get those units fixed up and get people in them.”

La Chapelle also has a waiting list for her Sternwheeler units.

“I’ve had one tenant here for 24 years and another here for 15,” she said.

Recently, another renter went to look at a new place.

The rent was advertised as $1,200.

But when La Chapelle’s tenant got there, the landlord changed the tune.

“I’ve got several other people coming to look at it,” said the landlord.

“So what are you offering?”

Relating the story, La Chapelle shook her head.

“When the Canada Winter Games came to town, people went nuts with the rent,” she said.

“And the lack of housing has people asking more.”

Whitehorse council and the territorial government have done nothing to address the affordable housing crisis in the territory, said Hardy.

“There is no incentive coming from any level of government to address this.”

Last year, Ottawa announced a $50-million program to address affordable housing issues in the territory.

Approximately $32 million of that was allocated to First Nations.

“What has happened to this $17 million that government has rolled back into its coffers that is supposed to be affordable housing?” said Hardy.

There hasn’t been any announcements or new initiatives, he said.

“The only thing we’ve seen is the seniors’ complex that came from the Canada Winter Games.”

But the housing crisis doesn’t just affect seniors, he said.

“We’re talking about our society — that’s from youth all the way to our seniors.”

And the crisis is only going to get worse, he added.

While municipalities like Vancouver have started buying up hotels to address the growing need for low-income accommodation, Whitehorse is tearing down a lot of its affordable housing.

When the Pioneer Inn comes down at the end of the month, its residents will have to find new homes.

And they won’t be able to afford the condos that are going up in its place, said Hardy.

“There’s nothing in place to say, if you’re tearing down low-income housing a percentage has to be replaced,” he said.

Hardy is posing a challenge to Yukon Party MLAs.

“If they come with me, I’ll take them into places with the owners’ permission and we can talk to the people on the streets struggling to find homes with winter coming,” he said.

“If they were willing to come out and actually listen to the people.”

Hardy has been to the rooms at the Pioneer, and he knows how shocking the conditions are for the disenfranchised.

“If the bloody MLAs would get off their butt and get out of their ivory towers and go downtown at one or two in the morning and see the homelessness — go and see where people are couch surfing, go and see the situation that many people live in — places you wouldn’t let your dog stay in — then maybe they would realize the seriousness of the problem,” he said.

“But they won’t.

“They put their blinders on and refuse to participate in something they should be involved in.

“Even though they have the dollars to address it.”

Canada likes to think of itself as a caring society that looks after the less fortunate, said Hardy.

“But our governments are not acting that way.”