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Watson Lake seeks housing solutions

Watson Lake's chair of economic revitalization says a severe housing shortage is stifling growth, and he has a laundry list of ideas to fix it.

Watson Lake’s chair of economic revitalization says a severe housing shortage is stifling growth, and he has a laundry list of ideas to fix it.

At a public meeting Wednesday, Larry Bagnell learned that two employed town residents will have to leave in two weeks if they can’t find a place to live.

“For whatever reason they can’t stay in the house they’re in,” said Bagnell. “I think the owner is selling it. And they’re going to have to leave town, unless they live in a tent with their daughter, which would be pretty hard at 30 below.”

Local employers, such as mines in the area, can’t find housing in the area, so they rely on hotels to keep workers sheltered when they’re not in camp.

The Yukon government provides subsidized housing to its Watson Lake employees, but private industry is left to fend for itself.

“If they need to do that to get good employees, how is the private sector going to get good employees?” asked Bagnell.

Dale Kozmen, Yukon Housing Corp.‘s vice-president of operations, attended the meeting to let residents know what programs already exist that could help cushion the housing crunch.

The territory provides subsidies for renovating houses to add rental suites.

It also offers mortgages to people who can’t get them from a bank, and it helps finance owner-built homes. Kozmen said these programs are underused outside of Whitehorse, according to Bagnell.

But at the heart of the problem is a dire shortage of lots, said Bagnell.

Currently, the government only has one residential lot, one country-residential lot, and six mobile-home lots for sale in Watson Lake.

Whitehorse’s forthcoming Whistle Bend subdivision is a good example of what the government can do to create more residential land, said Bagnell.

“The Yukon government goes in, they bring in the bulldozers, they prepare all the land, they put in the water and the sewer and the streets and everything, and they sell the lots.”

Without incentives, private development isn’t economically feasible, especially in small communities where building costs can be much higher.

“Yukon Housing even agrees, it’s not economical for a developer to build a rental property anywhere in Canada,” said Bagnell.

It could cost $300,000 or $400,000 to buy the lot and build the house. To make that feasible, rents would be unaffordable, said Bagnell.

After this year’s flood in nearby Upper Liard, the government offered to buy 11 properties and declare the area a flood plain, unsuitable for residency. This was only a minor aggravation to the housing shortage in Watson Lake, said Bagnell.

Initially, the government banned all lot sales in the town, including industrial ones, to accommodate the few flood-affected residents who might want to purchase them.

That ban was quickly reversed after the mayor wrote a letter to the housing corporation, said Bagnell. Instead, a few lots were taken off the market and set aside for affected residents.

Twenty or 30 years ago, the provincial, territorial and federal governments provided a variety of incentives for developers to build affordable housing, but that is not the case today, said Bagnell.

In fact, the rental supply is shrinking as more properties are converted to condominiums, a trend that has been seen recently in Whitehorse.

Government incentives are particularly important in small communities, which are more sensitive to economic downturns. If a major employer shuts down and workers leave, developers are on the hook for a mortgage but may not be able to find renters.

Bagnell is looking to communities across Canada to develop solutions to the housing shortage.

He wants to start a housing action committee, and eventually develop a housing strategy, along the lines of what Alberta communities like Canmore and Grande Prairie have done.

The Peel Regional Council in Ontario has 56 policies related to housing, Bagnell noted.

Ultimately the answer lies in the ability of the municipality to develop a strategy and the willingness of the territorial government to support the plan through appropriate perks, he said.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at