Rents ratchet up

Ciara Stick came home from her Las Vegas vacation last week to find a notice from her landlord. In September, her rent is going up by $450 a month.

Ciara Stick came home from her Las Vegas vacation last week to find a notice from her landlord.

In September, her rent is going up by $450 a month.

Her neighbours received a similar notice, except their rent will jump by $600 a month, said Stick.

To be fair, Stick and her common-law husband, who rent the two-bedroom suite in downtown Whitehorse know they’ve been enjoying a pretty good deal. Their rent has stayed at $800 per month for the last five years.

And $1,250 a month really isn’t that bad for the spot, said Stick.

But she worries what similar increases will mean to other renters.

“What about all the single mothers out there?” she asked. “Where are those people going to go?

“It’s a huge concern, not just for me but for everybody. There are going to be more homeless and more people panhandling. We need to stop this.”

Rental rates for apartments in Whitehorse have steadily grown since 2004, said Gary Brown with the Yukon Bureau of Statistics.

In 2004, the median rent was $650 per month. As of March 2012, it sat at $825 per month.

Meanwhile, vacancy rates have “trailed off here in a big way,” said Brown.

In 1999 vacancy rates peaked at 19.7 per cent. But that number hasn’t been above four per cent since 2005, hitting an all-time low in 2010 with 0.6 per cent. It is currently 1.3 per cent.

But these numbers are all incomplete. They only count apartments and any building that contains three or more units under one roof. That means basement suites, duplexes, condo rentals and Stick’s suite aren’t included.

The cost of offering rental units has grown in recent years, said Kerry Lyle, president of the Yukon’s Residential Landlord Association.

Property assessments on Lyle’s units jumped by 18 per cent this year, and that’s going to drive up his taxes, he said. Utility charges and bank fees are also up.

“If it was affordable, people would be building rental units,” said Lyle. And, by and large, they’re not – at least not the more affordable, lower-end units.

Rental units tracked by the bureau of statistics surveys haven’t changed in a long while, sitting around 1,000 individual units, said Brown.

As supply has dried up, prices have soared. Likewise, rents for “higher end” units, like duplexes, basement apartments, condos and suites like Stick’s are also going up.

Sonny Gray, a Whitehorse property manager and condominium association organizer, has a good idea of what’s causing those rates to rise. In a word: “condominiumization.”

It’s not a new trend, but it is a very detrimental one for renters, he said.

It starts when a developer buys a big rental complex, like an apartment building. Upgrades are done. The building is rezoned as individual condos, and the developer sells each unit for a handsome profit.

The city also wins, by collecting a bigger share of property taxes.

Exacerbating the problem are property owners who buy affordable condos, then turn around and rent them, said Gray.

The city needs to stop allowing developers to turn all the existing rental units into condos, said Gray. He’d also like to see the territory create a law to regulate the number of renters in each condo complex, he said.

Rental rates for condos are usually not cheap. They can’t be, said Gray.

Owners must pay monthly condo fees on top of mortgage payments, taxes, utilities bills and repairs securities.

“If there’s nothing there on the municipal or territorial level to stop them,” said Gray, shrugging and raising his hands. “Heck, if I had the money, I’d do it.”

Condos offer a quicker return on investment than other developments, said Rich Thompson, CEO of Northern Vision Development.

His company bought the rental complex known as the Heights, tucked behind the Airport Chalet in Hillcrest, in 2007.

It then turned the 23 rental units into 21 condos. By 2009, Thompson’s company had sold about half of the condos to a mixture of people.

Some were looking for a condo to live in. Others wanted units to rent out. And some were Heights renters who wanted to start paying themselves, instead of a landlord.

“It’s not so simple to say condominiumization is a bad thing,” said Thompson, noting that it allows renters to become owners.

The last condos in the Heights sold in 2011, said Thompson. All were rental units until they sold, he added.

But Northern Vision did that deal back when the economy was a little “softer” than it is now, Thompson said. Demand has since grown.

Building costs are one of the biggest challenges in addressing the territory’s housing shortage, said Thompson. Pre-fabricated housing could be one fix.

A prefab industry could even be built in the territory, to ensure that jobs and profits stay here, said Thompson.

Stick also has a suggestion. She thinks the territory should cap the rent, like places Outside have.

Lyle disagrees. There’s no cap on property taxes, mortgage rates or utility charges, he said. And rent needs to cover those costs.

Gray agrees. For him, the only real answer is to build more apartments.

“There needs to be leadership,” he said. That applies on the city and territorial levels.

If the territory won’t build rental units, the city should go to Ottawa, he said.

“I’m a Conservative – I’ve voted for this government twice before, but I never will again,” Gray said of the Yukon Party.

He pointed to Premier Darrell Pasloski’s election promise to develop Lot 262, off Mountainview Road, into an affordable housing. During a recent call for bids, developers turned up their noses at the offer. The only two offers received were later disqualified because they required the territory to pitch in money.

“They’ve been asleep at the wheel,” said Gray.

If the government were serious about developing Lot 262, it would have given bigger incentives, like offering to bury utility lines at no cost to the developer, he said.

The current inaction “is not conservatism,” said Gray. “It’s blatant disregard for public.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at