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Private sector, public need

Christina Zahar is putting everything on the line to tackle a problem usually left to governments and large corporations.

Christina Zahar is putting everything on the line to tackle a problem usually left to governments and large corporations.

She’s maxed out all her credit cards, is considering selling her RRSPs and has spent the inheritance she got from her father.

The Whitehorse woman is using every cent she has and depending on the goodwill of others to build Roger’s Place, an apartment complex to give a home to some of the territory’s hardest-to-house people.

As the three-storey building goes up in Porter Creek, she’ll go more and more into debt - at least until it’s complete or she can find someone to help her out.

Zahar estimates about $1.6 million has gone into the building. She’ll need $4.6 million to get it done.

“What am I going to do? Wait until everybody is dead before we try and build places for people to live?” she said.

“Yeah, I wish I had gotten financing in place before I started building because then I wouldn’t be so stressed.”

Zahar said she’s spent years looking for grants or other ways to fund the place, but could have been stuck waiting forever.

“What else can you say? You just build it.”

* * *

Right now Roger’s Place, named after Zahar’s father, is a shell. There’s a foundation, some walls and, just recently, stairs.

When it’s done it’ll have 12 bachelor apartments on the main level and 12 three-bedroom apartments spread over the other floors.

Part rooming house, part co-op, Zahar’s business model hasn’t been tried here before. The idea is to rent the rooms individually even in the larger units. That means more total rent than a standard three-bedroom would get.

Zahar envisions a place where non-profit organizations place their clients and come in to provide support when needed.

She hopes the place will develop organically into a community, a place where people will also support each other.

She easily rhymes off at least half a dozen groups she could imagine living there: seniors, people with disabilities, people with FASD, teenagers who have aged out of the foster care system or students from the communities coming into Whitehorse for school.

Who gets to live there and the rules for running the alcohol- and drug-free place would be up to a co-op board.

People on social assistance would pay the maximum amount covered by the Yukon government, about $900 a month including utilities.

Other people might pay less or could get a discounted rent for helping around the building. The overall pot of money would be enough to keep the place running, and make a little bit of profit, she said.

“It can be anything that will be safe and anything that will work for everybody involved.”

* * *

Housing is typically considered affordable if a household spends no more than 30 per cent of its before-tax income on rent plus utilities.

A report released Thursday on national rental rates found that 56 per cent of renters in Whitehorse with an income less than $27,000 spend more than that.

Thirteen per cent of renters spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent.

Currently there are 112 individuals on the waitlist for government social housing. Ninety-three of those people are in Whitehorse.

Zahar moved from B.C. to Yukon in 1989.

“My friends were people who grew up here and were (suffering from) the trickle-down effect of the residential school system,” she said.

“The struggles that they had, I didn’t understand that when I was young. I didn’t understand those kinds of struggles.”

As an adult she went to law school and eventually returned to the territory to work as a personal injury lawyer. There, she saw how traumatic injuries often led to financial troubles. In the same office she helped residential school abuse survivors present their cases against the government.

She saw the people she knew as a child grow up into successful adults.

“Look at how much these people have succeeded after having traumatic childhoods. Look where they are. Can you imagine if we intercepted that trauma earlier, where these people would be faster?”

Teens coming out of foster care could also use the kind of support her building would offer, she said.

“They just need a little bit of help and somebody to have their back so that they can afford to make mistakes,” she said.

“...The only way that you can move forward in life is to take those chances.”

* * *

But Yukon Housing doesn’t offer the kind of commercial loan she needs, Zahar said. Convincing a bank is a hard task. The building has little value in its current state. Since it’s a rental, she doesn’t have leases or presales to show.

Zahar thought she had a credit union lined up to loan the rest of the money until a few weeks ago when it backed out.

She’s been depending on a handful of contractors willing to postpone getting all of their money until she is able to get funding.

“If she doesn’t get a roof on the building then she doesn’t owe me anything,” said Mike Mickey with Glacier Drilling.

Mickey said he fully supports Zahar’s efforts to get reasonable rentals into the territory for people in need.

“Every last one (of the contractors) understands she’s up against this great big wall for no good reason.”

Pricey lending companies are another option. Zahar said she’s willing to go that way if she has to, but is hoping to find a partner another way first, maybe the Yukon government or a First Nation.

Any loan would be temporary, she insists.

Once the building is ready to be occupied the bank can assess its value and issue a mortgage based on that.

That’s when everyone would get his or her money back, she said.

* * *

Last year Zahar was approved for a grant from the City of Whitehorse to cover her property taxes for up to $500,000 over 10 years. Under a new program, Yukon Housing would normally match that grant, but Zahar got her development permit a few months too early to qualify.

Yukon Housing’s board is currently reviewing the situation. If the territory approves her application for matching, Zahar hopes that promise of money, combined with the progress that’s been made on the building, might be enough to convince banks to give her a conventional loan and avoid a broker.

Meanwhile, Zahar continues to stay in touch with non-profits in town that might want to be part of the building.

“I think it’s really exciting and encouraging that people are running out of patience for the government to take action on housing, and they’re just taking it into their own hands and looking for creative solutions to provide affordable housing in Whitehorse,” said Hillary Aiken with the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre.

Aiken said the organization won’t know if it’ll participate in the building until everything is finished. But the kind of community Zahar wants to create in the building is valuable, she said.

“What we hear time and again is that people want community, and that’s really what makes a big difference in their lives.”

The Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Society of Yukon is also being kept in the loop and will take a closer look once things are done.

Executive director Wenda Bradley said FASSY’s clients have a range of needs and some might fit into what Zahar wants to create.

“Any option is better than homeless.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at