Commentary: Lack of affordable housing in the Yukon is not about funds, but how we spend them

Why are we not building apartment complexes to serve the lower and lower-middle income bracket?

Lori Fox

We are all well aware there is a severe — almost intolerable — housing crisis in our city.

Homelessness and affordable housing were among the most-talked about subjects during the recent municipal election, and the issue comes up again and again in the legislature. In some ways, we appear to be making small headway regarding the problem: the new Salvation Army building is up and functional, the Steve Cardiff tiny home project is underway and the Liberal government has pledged to build the first housing-first apartment complex in the history of the territory.

While these initiatives are important to addressing housing for vulnerable people, they do little for the problem at the heart of the matter: there’s nowhere for the average, lower-to-lower middle income person to live in this city. With a vacancy rate regularly fluctuating between 1.5-3 per cent and a median rental rate around $1,000 for a one-bed before utilities (a number which, as I have written about before, is artificially lowered by the number of people who have been in the same unit forever) it’s slim pickings for anyone looking for a decent place to rest their head.

Why are we not building apartment complexes that are funded or at least subsidized by government money to serve the lower and lower-middle income bracket?

Considering the severity of the problem, large-scale government-funded apartment complexes — which would involve purchasing land and then building units on it which would eventually return the investment through rent anyways — does not seem that complicated or costly, especially in light of the multi-phased Whistle Bend project, which involved money, time and planning from all three levels of government. Considering this new subdivision will eventually be home to 8,000 people and requires clearing of land and lot development, planning for new bus routes and municipal services and the integration of new businesses, buying land and putting up a few new apartment buildings where services already exist on the government dime does not seem that hard by contrast.

How little government of all levels seem to understand about the housing shortage can be eloquently demonstrated in the opening of the new Whistle Bend Continuing Care Facility: we spent more than $150 million to build the thing, but didn’t think about where the 125 workers that need to be imported from Outside in order to properly staff it will live. To combat this, the government has pushed for house-sharing within the community, but if fully-employed, arguably well-paid and socially-valuable people such as healthcare professionals cannot find a long-term place of their own to live, one has to wonder what people of lesser financial means are supposed to do.

It seems to me that governments simply do not care about rental availability, and by association the class of people who require them. That the policy decisions that would affect this availability are being made by government and municipal employees, who are markedly not in the economic class these much-needed units would serve, probably comes into play; they simply do not grasp the need.

This is eloquently demonstrated in current policies which allow funding and subsidies for people who already own homes to build rental suites. Yes, they create new rentals, but the present scarcity continues to make them difficult to afford for the classes they are designed to serve. Essentially, people who are not able to buy a house end up paying for the mortgages of those who can, which solves the “housing” portion of the problem but not the “affordable” part.

The argument can — and will — be made that government-funded affordable housing complexes for the lower and lower middle classes is anti-capitalist, and would unfairly affect the income and value of existing rentals. A capitalist market, however, is supposed to respond to supply and demand, and yet there is a huge demand that is not being filled by the market; when was the last time you saw a new rental complex go up? We are told this is because building up here is expensive and the slow rate of return on apartments is unattractive to developers, so they build higher and faster profit units like condos instead. Essentially, the private market is not interested in filling the need, which creates social and economic issues for those left without proper housing they can actually afford to pay for.

Furthermore, our economy is largely artificial in the first place, being heavily subsidized by federal dollars. In the 2018-19 fiscal year, Yukon will receive $1 billion in federal support; that’s $25,300 per capita. If the government paid the rent of every single Yukoner at the assumed median rent of $1,000 a month for a year, they would still have $13,300 per capita leftover. By contrast, Newfoundland and Labrador, with a population of half a million and a noted “have-not” province, will receive only $1,400 per capita in the same time period, according to the Canadian Department of Finance.

Moreover, the Yukon government already tinkers with the private market. If we have $360 million in federal and territorial money to build the Yukon Resource Gateway project to benefit the natural resource extraction industries, surely we can find some cash to make sure the people who live in the Yukon actually have places they can afford to live?

We also have some pretty amazing luxuries for the amount of people who live here, including a beautiful library, the Canada Games Centre, and generous funding for the arts. All classes can agree these are services which we highly prize, but I think the lower and lower middle class people constantly strained by this housing crisis would agree that those things are worth significantly less if all your money goes to paying for your crappy basement apartment where you’re hiding your cat in your closet because your landlord doesn’t allow pets.

We have around 40,000 people in this territory. That we basically cannot get our crap together to provide affordable housing for what is essentially the population of small town with federal support of $1 billion is a pathetic travesty. It’s purely about priorities, and the renting classes are clearly not one.

Lori Fox is a former Yukon News reporter and a freelance journalist based in Whitehorse

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