Roger’s Place apartment complex photographed in Whitehorse on Mar. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Whitehorse woman sells assets, calls in favours to build affordable housing complex

Porter Creek complex rents to first tenants after four-year build

Christina Zahar can’t afford a unit in her own apartment complex. That’s how broke she said she’s gone financing its construction over the last four years.

“I’ve been starving,” she told the News in late January. “I started this in 2014. This is 2018. I’ve been starving a long time.”

Now that some of the units are complete, and rented as of March 1, Zahar is hoping to have a bit of breathing room.

She’s been maxing out credit cards and living with friends in order to finish Roger’s Place — a 24-unit building in Porter Creek that’s named for her father. He left her the inheritance that helped fund the project, built on a lot she’d owned for years, in 2014. Also that year, she received a $500,000 City of Whitehorse grant intended to cover property taxes over a 10-year period.

Since then, Zahar, a former real estate agent, has taken out a mortgage on her house in Vancouver. She funded the third floor and roof of Roger’s Place by selling a rental condo in Vancouver.

She said she had to go that route because banks wouldn’t finance the plan. They viewed the complex, which Zahar initially envisioned as a rooming house/co-op hybrid, as a social housing experiment.

She wanted to build something for the “hard-to-house” including seniors, people with disabilities, those with FASD, teenagers too old for foster care, and students from the communities. Pets would be allowed (“but no snakes. I don’t like them.”) because she knows it’s hard to find pet-friendly units. Zahar imagined rent being $900 a month.

“Things have changed so much from what the very first vision was to what it has to be now,” Zahar said, noting that to be financially viable, bachelor units had to be priced at $1,000 a month and three-bedrooms had to be $1,800. “I think it’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The units are also no longer specifically for the hard-to-house.

Ace Flower and Freedom Grant had been looking for three months for a place to live when they heard of an open house at Roger’s Place on Feb. 27.

Both are students at Yukon College. Right now, they live in the dorms on campus but, anticipating the end of the school year, they said they’ve been apartment-hunting since December.

They were hoping to apply for one of Zahar’s three-bedroom units (there are three left, along with eight bachelors)

“It’s so tough,” said Flower, 21. She works full-time at McDonald’s while studying early childhood education. She can afford up to $1,000 a month, but she said it doesn’t make a difference when units are swept up as soon they’re listed.

“And since we’re college students, also, it’s harder,” said Grant, 20, who’s in Whitehorse from Teslin, upgrading courses at the college.

Grant said she had been looking at a four-bedroom house in Porter Creek, but the owner didn’t want to rent to students.

“She wants people who have rented before,” said Grant.

Flower moved from Vancouver to the Yukon for school. She had no idea it would be this hard to rent.

“It’s way harder to find places here than in Vancouver and Vancouver’s pretty hard,” she said.

Zahar knows this. It’s one of the reasons she wanted to build a housing complex on the lot to begin with.

In the early days, she worked with a number of contractors (including Grey Wolf Builders and Glacier Drilling) who were willing to delay payment until Zahar could secure grants, loans or other financing.

Today she’s working with Evergreen Homes and Construction.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people I talked to about this project over the years,” she said. “Because I had financing, originally. And then whatever. All these crazy things happened. Because I have no shame any more, I called everybody for input and ideas and I think at one point I called Joe (Glynn of Evergreen).”

“They’re just like can-do kind of people. As opposed to the kinds that just immediately write you off as a nut.”

Zahar was excited, but vague about the details of how the complex came to be, financially. Partly that’s because she seems to believe optimism helped. “If you know what you’re doing is right and you know what you’re doing to going to be financially sound, eventually you’ll get there,” she said, smiling.

She acknowledged Evergreen took a lot of the financial work off her plate. She said she doesn’t know the details (calls to Evergreen were not returned) but did tell the News in 2015 that she had put $1.6 million into the build and would need $4.6 million to complete it.

She also said it’s been a lot of sweat equity. That she has personally moved dirt. Cut down trees. Removed snow from the roof.

“Like, I know how to run equipment now,” she said. “A bobcat. A Kubota. And, you know, as friends have the equipment we borrow it.”

And as units become available, she rents them.

More units will be ready in April, May, June, July and August.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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