Yukonomist: Let them live in trailers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” said Rome’s first emperor proudly as he looked back on his career.

Whitehorse’s mayor and council have updated the saying for the modern era, finding Whitehorse a city of 1980s beige and leaving it a city of glass and open-concept design.

City Council voted this week to approve $25-million for a new city hall building, in addition to the recently opened $56-million operations building.

Rome needed public buildings worthy of the empire that paid for them, and now the Yukon’s capital will have public edifices worthy of our transfer payment.

The City’s communications department offers many examples of the efficiencies and effectiveness this massive building program will deliver. The operations building has much larger and more modern garage facilities for the bus fleet, for example, and one politician referred to the previous services building as an “asbestos rat trap.”

We do seem to have solved the problems of the bus fleet. The operations building has 20 bays so our 13 buses, 2 handybuses and future buses do not have to be left outside idling their diesels in the winter. And the new triple-bay carwash for large vehicles will keep them cleaner than the average Whitehorse vehicle.

But Whitehorse’s capital-sized building program does raise a few questions.

First of all, what are we to think of the senior leaders at our phone company and electric company?

They run businesses with similar numbers of employees as the City of Whitehorse, with lots of trucks and service vehicles, yet seem content to rule their empires from decidedly un-imperial facilities.

The phone company headquarters on Lambert Street is so old that you would have to find an alumni of Lambert Street Elementary School to tell you when their school was pulled down and replaced by the blue office building currently on the site. It is similar for the electric company’s headquarters on Front Street.

Why haven’t they gone to their shareholders to get $80 million for a do-over of their garages and head offices so they can capture the same efficiency and effectiveness benefits as our municipal government?

But the bigger question is about the city’s residents and the buildings they live in.

For example, this rental ad from last week: “16’ travel trailer in Porter Creek, water, electricity and wifi inclu’d, shared washroom & laundry. $600/mon.”

Or this rental opportunity: “24’ travel trailer, Judas Creek, electrical-propane exclud’d. N/P, N/S. $650/mon. $950/mon. for two people.”

As they don’t say, living country residential will get you a larger trailer.

What would Whitehorse’s housing shortage look like if our municipal leadership put as much money and energy into solving the problem of housing the people as much as the bus fleet?

What would the city look like if it had chosen a more modest upgrade to its own facilities and had put more cash and management attention into lots and social housing?

One of the arguments the City’s communications department puts forward is that about $16 million of the $25 million for the new city hall building will come from the feds, either directly or indirectly through the territorial budget. Whitehorse taxpayers have to cover about $8 million.

This sounds good, but how many lots, social housing units or tiny houses could those three levels of government have opened up with $25 million?

For years, every politician in the Yukon has been saying the housing crisis is a serious problem requiring immediate action.

Ads offering travel trailers with shared toilets for $650 per month as living accommodations suggest there is a lot more to be done.

Emperor Augustus wasn’t too worried about where the plebs lived. But in a modern democracy, we should expect more. More than just big talk on affordable housing.

The city election is this fall. Be sure to ask the candidates how they voted on the new city hall and what specific actions they plan to take to help people living in travel trailers with shared toilets.

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.