Sternwheeler condo conversion leaves residents with few options

More than 50 Yukon families found out this week they could be homeless by the end of the summer. Residents of the Sternwheeler Village apartments in Riverdale met with their new landlord on Monday.

More than 50 Yukon families found out this week they could be homeless by the end of the summer.

Residents of the Sternwheeler Village apartments in Riverdale met with their new landlord on Monday.

Wayne Cunningham, the owner of Kareway Homes, informed his tenants that by September 1, Sternwheeler Village will become a condominium corporation, and on October 1 unit rentals will increase by 20 per cent – more than $200 per month – in addition to new monthly condo fees. (Cunningham didn’t provide an exact amount for the condo fees.)

He also told them that as condos, their current homes would be up for sale.

“And you’ll have no idea when, or if, your house will be sold,” said Ken House.

House lives in the Sternwheeler Village and runs his business from his basement.

He’s started looking for a new home, he said.

“My old-age security comes to about $1,500 a month,” said House. “Now rent will go to $1,260 and hydro is $220 a month for me.”

That leaves House $20 for groceries and gas for his vehicle.

And those costs are low compared to his medical bills.

House identifies himself as a “walking paraplegic.”

Numerous strokes, heart attacks, artificial organs and a severe brain aneurism have left House needing a least 260 milligrams of morphine each day to keep walking, he said.

“I’ve been through a lot,” he said, rubbing his hand back and forth on the handle of his cane. “But I get by.”

When asked if he thinks he will still be able to “get by” with these changes to his living situation, House looks down at Bear, his small white dog whimpering at his feet.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “Most of the people in here are either retired or single parents or young families.”

The 50 three-bedroom, pet-friendly town houses in the complex have been rented at affordable rates to low-income families since they were built in 1976.

Those rates became less affordable lately.

In 2010, the rent jumped more than 20 per cent from $850 per month to $1,050 per month, said House.

Already cramped families took in renters and entire families moved in with each other in order to cover the monthly rent.

Low or fixed incomes and poor credit or no credit have kept most of the Sternwheeler’s residents where they are for years.

At Monday’s meeting, Cunningham told the gathering he was doing them a favour by offering them an opportunity to buy their homes, rather than rent for the rest of their lives.

But the Sternwheeler units aren’t worth the $230,000 Cunningham is offering them for, said House.

He listed numerous critical problems with the units, like substandard and faulty electrical and plumbing, shifting foundations covered in dry rot and attics full of black mould.

If residents don’t want to buy the units “as is” they have the option to buy their unit after renovations, like new siding and windows, for $270,000 – only $20,000 less than Kareway’s brand-new town houses in Porter Creek.

Cunnigham assured the group they were the first to know about the opportunity to buy. He contradicted himself by saying how much interest has already been expressed and that he already has a few buyers lined up, some who want to live in the renovated condos and others who want to buy whole blocks and rent them.

Cunningham wouldn’t say who the residents’ possible future landlords would be or what they would charge for rent.

After one week, four phone calls and three messages, Cunningham did not respond to interview requests from the News.

“When it changes while people are living there, that’s a big concern,” said Mike Gau, Whitehorse planning manager, about the trend of “condominiumizing” rental units.

The city can’t step in, he said.

“If they can meet the regulations to create condo units, they can do it. There’s nothing prohibiting the conversion. It’s not a zoning issue, it’s a form of ownership. They’re both considered multiple housing. There’s nothing stopping that process from happening.”

Jack Bailey, who has owned Sternwheeler Village since 1976, has too many properties in too many places to keep up with the Sternwheeler, he said when he was reached at his B.C. home Thursday.

Bailey wouldn’t answer any more questions, noting that Cunningham is the new owner.

Between now and September, Cunningham will begin construction on a few new condos within the village, he told residents.

He is building them where the neighbourhood’s playground currently sits.

House worries about what that construction will mean for the two- and three-year-olds running around and the numerous night-shift workers who sleep during the day.

“But this place is only money for (Cunningham),” said one resident who didn’t want to be identified for fear her unit may be targeted and sold. “He doesn’t care about us. We’re either money or we’re a problem.”

Most of her neighbours have told her they will be leaving the territory entirely, she said.

“They’re taking the largest spot of rentals for low-income families and are turning them into ‘you can’t live here anymore,’” she said. “And who says we have to saddle ourselves with a mortgage? I don’t want to be a homeowner. I don’t know what to do. What are all these families going to do?”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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