Take two: Yukon Housing tries again to build low income rental units

The Yukon Housing Corporation is looking for developers interested in building low-income rentals. The government is offering to help pay for the development, as long as the rent stays low for at least 10 years.

The Yukon Housing Corporation is looking for developers interested in building low-income rentals.

The government is offering to help pay for the development, as long as the rent stays low for at least 10 years.

If you’re experiencing a bit of deja vu, that’s because this was essentially the model for a big affordable housing project that was cancelled, amidst much uproar, last year.

With a few new rules and significantly less cash, the corporation has decided to test the waters again.

It issued two expression of interest requests this week – one for Whitehorse and one for Dawson.

Right now all it wants is for people to put their names on a list if they might be interested in building new units by 2018.

Last year the government was planning to subsidize developers up to 50 per cent of their development costs if they built rentals and agreed to keep them at or below 95 per cent of median rates.

Seventy five units were scheduled to go up using Northern Housing Trust money.

But Yukon’s landlords and realtors complained. They accused the government of giving certain developers a leg-up and potentially flooding the market with cheap rentals.

The projects in Whitehorse were cancelled at the last minute.

This new plan has some significant differences to its pricey predecessor, said Mary Cameron, the corporation’s director of community partnering and lending.

Last year the government had $13 million to dole out. This time they’ve got $1.2 million. The money’s part of a $16 million deal between the territorial government and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation that was announced in 2014.

“I think that’s probably the biggest difference in this model, compared to that model, was the amount of money available to developers and thereby the size which they could construct,” Cameron said.

The original project also faced criticisms for not initially having an income cap for prospective renters, though the government did offer to add a $68,000 cap right before things fell apart. Any project that gets money now will have income rules right from the beginning.

And unlike the original plan, which was designed for renters who didn’t qualify for government help but could not afford to buy, this time is specifically for people who qualify for social housing.

Cameron says that’s one of the rules to get the CMHC money. In Dawson City the benchmark for qualifying for social housing is $55,927 a year for one-bedroom units and $62,100 for two bedrooms.

In Whitehorse those numbers are $49,500 and $54,000 respectively.

It’s too early to say what type of projects could get the funding or how the money will be divided up. Cameron said the corporation just wanted to take the pulse of who might be interested.

They are looking for people willing to develop eight or more rentals in Whitehorse and Dawson and keep the rent at or below market rate.

Doing something this small-scale is probably a good idea, said Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition co-chair Bill Thomas, especially if you consider what happened last time.

“They’re trying to figure out what kind of response they’re going to get by making the procedure pretty straightforward,” he said.

“All they want from potential developers is some contact information and a commitment to further discussions.”

Thomas said a project this size is not going to solve the lack of housing in the territory, but is a good step.

Cameron suggested people interested in building could also reach out to other funders for help.

Thomas said people in town are particularly interested in the federal Liberal government’s election promise for billions in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years. It’s expected to include cash for affordable housing.

“I do know that there are certain groups that are already starting to gear up, tactically and strategically, as to how they can get better access to that infrastructure money.”

Val Smith, president of the Yukon Real Estate Association, said she’s sent copies of the expressions of interest to the rest of the association to get a sense of where everyone stands, but hasn’t heard back from many people yet.

The association maintains that the government should be letting the private market operate, she said.

Smith doesn’t have a problem with issuing an expression of interest.

She said she’s glad it has specific details about the rules right from the beginning.

“My perception is that $1.2 million isn’t a whole lot of money and isn’t going to, can’t possibly, make any kind of huge harmful impact.”

The committee implementing the territory’s housing action plan, which includes the real estate association, is looking for someone to complete a report on housing needs in the Yukon, so that everyone knows where we stand, she said.

Like she did with last year’s project, the NDP’s Kate White is questioning the part of this deal that says rents have to stay low for a minimum of 10 years.

Since it’s the government’s money, there’s no reason rents couldn’t be mandated to stay low forever, she said.

“There’s nothing in place to say it will be a long-term solution because there’s nothing saying that the person that builds these units, after 10 years, can’t do whatever they choose to do. Which is fair, because it has not been written in.”

People who might be interested in the territorial money have until Dec. 31 to put their name on the list for further discussions.

Contact Ashley Joannou at