Yukonomist: Left hands and right hands in government

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

There’s an old cliché that government left hands don’t know what government right hands are doing.

But Whitehorse is a small town. You would hope that every once in a while Left Hand would end up in the same Oldtimers hockey team or hot yoga session with Right Hand, and they might talk about work in the parking lot afterwards.

Back when Yukon legend Jim Smith ran the show as Commissioner, government was a lot smaller. Judging from his stories, he would often drag Right Hand and Left Hand into his office and encourage them to grasp the obvious together.

You may have had similar thoughts when you saw the Yukon News headline last week saying, “City may rent Whistlebend townhouse.”

The Department of Left Hands was concerned that it was spending too many tax dollars on temporary rental accommodation for new government workers moving here from Outside. Plus, Outside consultants often charge the government for hotel rooms when they visit in person.

Apparently the housing market is so tight in Whitehorse that finding housing is an issue when attracting staff. In one case, a new employee was unable to find housing after their temporary rental accommodation time ran out, and they left their City job to return home.

If the City of Whitehorse had its own townhouse, it wouldn’t have to pay market rates to local hotels and landlords for last-minute rentals. Hence the proposal to lease a 1700-square-foot townhouse in Whistlebend for two years for $2900 per month, plus electricity, cable and internet.

I’m not sure if visiting consultants will mow the lawn or someone from the City.

Basically, Left Hand is saying that the city’s housing crisis is so bad that it is affecting its ability to hire people and run its operations.

It made me wonder what the Department of Right Hands thought when they saw that article.

As experts in the machinery of government will know, the Department of Right Hands is responsible for developing lots for houses and apartment buildings.

Here we are, 110 months after the publication of Gimme Shelter: A Yukon News Special Report on the Territory’s Housing Crisis. And the City government is struggling to find accommodation for its workers.

We have become so habituated to being unable to buy a lot out of regular inventory that we have become used to lotteries. In the last lottery before the pandemic hit, 244 Yukoners put their names in the toque for a chance at 55 lots.

“I never win anything!” exclaimed one of the lucky 55. Another participant pointed out what everyone else was thinking: “Yukon is a big place and trying to get lots or land is frustrating when it’s all around us.”

Yes, indeed. We have about 40,000 people in roughly the same area occupied by France’s 69 million citizens. And we have organized a decade-long (and counting) land shortage for ourselves.

Prices are high too. Those 55 winners paid between $104,261.54 and $228,863.40 just for their lots. People not too embarrassed to admit that they remember the 1990s will point out that you could buy an entire house for less than that at the time.

In the second quarter of this year, as the pandemic raged, the average price of a single detached home in Whitehorse was $546,800. That was up $17,300 from a year before. Back in 2000, the average house price was $143,800.

This is hard for small businesses, as our chambers of commerce have pointed out repeatedly. Small businesses don’t have a captive tax base to fund renting a backup house for staff to live in while they find a place. Or to support paying higher wages so staff can afford to live somewhere.

Or what about people whose kids have graduated from high school but don’t have well paying City jobs or a consulting gig? These are our young people who are moving Outside to more affordable towns.

As the then-editor of the Yukon News wrote back in 2011, “Landlords, tenants, homeowners and buyers, executives, business leaders, politicians, addicts, single mothers, the working poor … you name it, they’re affected by the economic boom and housing bust.”

Meanwhile, over in the Department of the Third Hand, the City has an Economic Development Coordinator. This official implements the City’s 2015 Community Economic Development Strategy and updates the City’s Economic Development Data Platform with the fresh info entrepreneurs need, such as average rent (a record high) and median rent (a record high).

This official faces a Sysyphean task, trying to roll the economic rock up hill each day only to have housing prices roll it back down each night.

I propose taking a page from Jim Smith. Left Hand, Right Hand and Third Hand should all meet on Monday and figure out, perhaps with a sense of urgency, some way to prevent us still having a housing shortage in 2025.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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