Yukon seeking affordable housing solutions

Yukon Housing is looking for ways to spend $13 million on affordable housing. The government released a request for qualifications on Wednesday.

Yukon Housing is looking for ways to spend $13 million on affordable housing.

The government released a request for qualifications on Wednesday, asking for proposals to construct and operate new affordable rental housing in the territory.

“We’re looking to leverage the $13 million into $26 million in actual investment,” said Michael Hale, Yukon Housing Corp’s vice president of operations. “We’re not talking social housing and we’re not talking condos. We’re talking affordable housing.”

Whitehorse’s current vacancy rate is hovering around one per cent, which makes finding rental housing for single people, young families and lower income Yukoners very difficult, Hale said.

The plan is to have organizations pitch ideas and for Yukon Housing to bring 50 per cent of the cost to the table. The organizations, whether they be interested First Nations, non-government organizations or private business, must bring 50 per cent as well, but it doesn’t have to be in cash.

“It could be a First Nation with a stake in a construction company, or someone wanting to contribute land to the project. It’s got to be 50 per cent, but the equity need not be in cash,” Hale said.

It also has to be targeted at affordable housing. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines “affordable” as a rental rate no higher than 95 per cent of the median rent in the area. The median rental rate in Whitehorse was $875 in June.

“We all know there’s a gap in affordable rental,” Hale said, “and we know this isn’t going to answer all the questions. But this is something that we can move on quickly. We can’t afford to wait until the housing action plan is finished,” Hale said.

By partnering with local groups, Hale said he hopes that some projects could be ready very quickly, depending on the idea. If a proponent wants to repurpose an existing building, something like that could happen within about a year, Hale said.

The money is coming from the leftovers of the $50-million Northern Housing Trust, which the federal government gave to the territory to address housing needs here in 2006. Most of the money – $32.5 million – was given to Yukon First Nations to address their most pressing housing needs, and $4.5 million was used to construct the new Betty’s Haven, a 10-suite transition home for women fleeing violence.

But one expert on housing issues thinks the government is putting the focus in the wrong place.

Judy Graves, the recently retired homelessness advocate for Vancouver, was in Whitehorse this week for a number of public talks about ending street homelessness in the territory.

If she had $13 million to spend, she’d use it to help the most vulnerable, she said.

“I would want to spend first on the people who are most disabled, the people who really have such complex disabilities that they become homeless because they are simply not able to fend for themselves,” Graves said.

“They are not able to go back to work, they are past the employment part of their lives. A surprising number of them are older, and it really is for the rest of their lives going to be a full-time job to cope with their disabilities,” she said.

Based on her work with local anti-poverty workers, Graves estimates that there are perhaps 100 people in Whitehorse who are in desperate need of housing, and for whom targeted “affordable” rentals will always remain out of reach.

And while Graves built her career being compassionate towards the most vulnerable, she has a much more pragmatic reason for pushing to help solve their challenges. It’s cheaper than the alternative.

“When we are not meeting their needs, they consume a great deal of services, medical services in particular. When their needs are met, they become very much like the rest of us. The cost savings are shown immediately in the medical system,” she says.

In the Yukon, social assistance pays a living allowance of up to $881 per month for single people, but they often end up spending that money on inadequate motel rooms or even campground plots in the summer. That kind of inefficiency could be stemmed if the territory focused on real solutions for its hardest to house, Graves said.

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