Renting takes its toll

Homeless, Amanda McDonald called more than 32 rental listings in one day. Only six landlords did not hang up on her. With one, she got as far as scheduling a viewing.

Homeless, Amanda McDonald called more than 32 rental listings in one day.

Only six landlords did not hang up on her.

With one, she got as far as scheduling a viewing. But when she said it needed to be later in the afternoon, so she could pick up her daughter from preschool, she heard another “click” on the other end.

Landlords are not supposed to turn down people because they have children, said McDonald. And after years spent working for a property management company, she would know.

“I know the laws around these things,” she said. “As crappy as they are here in the Yukon, I know the laws.”

“Under the Human Rights Act, you can’t oppose children,” said Kerry Lyle, president of Yukon’s Residential Landlord Association. “Go look at my places. You’ll see swing sets in the yard. I think kids are great. I think kids are great for the neighbourhood. Families need a place to live.”

McDonald didn’t have time to go through the legal process.

She only had 30 days to find a place for herself and her one-year-old daughter Ruby.

Thirty days is all the Whitehorse women’s shelter, Kaushee’s Place, can offer to women who need help finding their feet, and a new place to stay.

It took a lot of courage for McDonald to take her daughter to a women’s shelter in the first place, she said.

“It got to the point where I was staying with my ex just because I had nowhere else to go,” she said. “I haven’t been in the Yukon very long so I don’t have the family base or friendship base.”

McDonald and her ex-husband moved from a three-bedroom home in Prince George, British Columbia, to a one-bedroom apartment in Whitehorse when she was still pregnant.

Since coming to the territory, housing has been an issue, McDonald said, reminiscing about unpacking boxes when she went into labour last year.

“We were lucky,” she said about their second home in Whitehorse.

They found an Albertan landlord who “wasn’t aware of the rental rates in the territory,” said McDonald.

But when he moved back to Calgary, the young family had 30 days to find somewhere else, and they never saw their $1,200 deposit ever again.

“And some places expect more than just one month’s rent for a deposit,” she said.

The young couple and infant found another one-bedroom and put most of their things in storage.

But the lack of space eventually pushed their rocky relationship to a breaking point, said McDonald.

“Kaushee’s is nothing like that stereotype people have of women’s shelters,” she said. “It is peaceful. It’s a blessing, literally.”

From the moment she got to the shelter, McDonald starting searching for a new place, she said.

She even found another single mom at the shelter who would be willing to share a place, so it would be more affordable.

“But the second I mentioned I had a daughter, I would hear a click,” she said. “Three or four places were OK if I had pets, but not a child. One man was OK with it, but I would have to be OK with him smoking inside the shared space all the time.”

During her time at Kaushee’s, McDonald viewed one downtown, bachelor apartment for $985 a month.

It had no doors, no space, an unsafe oil heater, a rotted floor and mould, she said. “And that’s not even the worst I’ve seen.”

The lack of rental units, coupled with the current high demand and exaggerated housing market does not mean all landlords are taking advantage, said Lyle, noting he can’t speak for all.

“Am I being pickier or am I being inundated with people needing to rent?” said Lyle, who manages about 30 units. “Do landlords have more choices? Yes. Does it make them pickier? Not at all. The landlord is still going to make, and has the absolute right to make, since it’s their home, the choice of who will live there. And they have to put in the tenant who is best suited to be there.

“Landlords have investments and they need to be able to protect their investment while providing clean, safe, affordable and well-maintained housing for whoever the tenants may be. That’s common knowledge. Even the tenants can tell you that.”

The issue is not callous landlords, it’s the lack of rental units available, said Lyle.

“It’s an unfortunate situation, but landlords aren’t going to fix it,” he said. “We have no control over when the city releases land to rent, the cost of building or new building standards.

“Why have there been no rentals built, or very few rentals built? Because we can’t afford it. It is no longer a financial attraction to an investor to build a home for a rental.”

If a dozen new units became available right now, Lyle says he could have them filled with good, respectable tenants within 10 days. The demand is simply not being met, he said.

Last year broke records in the territory for high rent and low vacancy, according to numbers from the Yukon bureau of statistics. Whitehorse’s 2010 vacancy rate of 0.6 per cent was the lowest on record since 1988. And in only four years, average rental rates in Whitehorse have gone up by 15.4 per cent, to $785 from $680.

Anything Lyle can put on the market at $1,200 a month, or less, gets him at least 20 phone calls within hours, he said.

“If I have available places, I’d be anybody’s landlord,” said Lyle.

Just days before her 30-day limit was up, McDonald finally found a place for herself and Ruby.

She didn’t find it in a listing online or in the newspaper though, it was through word of mouth – a work contact – that finally found her a new home.

Kaushee’s place has let her and Ruby stay a few more days as the new place gets painted and their stuff can be moved in from storage.

While she doesn’t believe in a blanket restriction, McDonald says laws on landlords in the territory could be a little bit stronger.

The Canadian Bar Association agrees.

In September 2010, the Yukon branch of the association submitted 10 recommendations to a committee the territorial government formed to review the Landlord and Tenant Act.

“Our goal is basically to improve the law, if possible,” said the president at the time of the recommendations, Peter Morawsky.

Aside from improving some definitions and being more user-friendly, the main concern the association had with Yukon’s act was how it allows landlords to end an indeterminate tenancy without cause.

“That’s one area where the Yukon is a little bit out of step,” he said. “But that’s a social policy issue.”

The government’s Select Committee on the Landlord and Tenant Act presented their report to the legislative assembly in November 2010.

But nothing has been done, Morawsky confirmed.

“But the Landlord and Tenant Act isn’t going to find you a place to stay,” said Lyle. “It isn’t going to create you a place to stay.”

McDonald agrees.

More than anything, it has to be easier for construction companies to build, she said.

“The issue comes down to how high housing rates are,” she said. “The process has become inhumane and we can’t blame landlords who have ridiculous mortgage rates. We need to stimulate the economy so companies can build to their heart’s content.”

McDonald lets out a big, long sigh.

Looking for a place to live in the Yukon has been hell, she said.

But things seem to be looking up for the young mother.

She and her ex-husband have even started working on their relationship again by trying things like couples’ counselling.

But they won’t be moving in together any time soon, she said.

The plan is to stay in their respective apartments so they can save up money to buy a home in Whitehorse.

“It’s not worth it to rent here,” she said. “You’re losing money, renting here.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at