Yukon News

The housing crisis is here

EditorialChris Windeyer Friday April 28, 2017

Joel Krahn/Yukon News

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Houses under construction on Skookum Drive in Whistle Bend.

The clock is ticking for Megan Breen, her husband, three kids, and dog.

A couple of months ago, the landlord who owns the Copper Ridge duplex they’ve called home for the last year and a half said he wanted to move back into the unit. They have until the end of May to find a new place.

That might not sound so urgent, but the Whitehorse rental market is now so tight that any posted vacancy immediately receives a deluge of interest. Breen says she’s inquired about 15 different places in the last month and has so far come up empty.

“As soon as we try to contact the (prospective landlord) there’s like 30 applications or it’s already taken,” she said. “It’s a scramble.”

Breen says she’s now taking anti-anxiety medication because the house hunt is so stressful.

Fed up, Breen took to a Facebook page devoted to Whitehorse property rentals to vent about the lack of affordable rental options and called on the Yukon Housing Corporation to build more units. It struck a chord. Numerous posters, many of whom face housing issues of their own, commiserated.

On Kijiji and Facebook alike, there are often more people posting in search of accommodation than there are accommodations offered. If you’re a pet owner, it’s even tougher to find a place. The rental crisis, which has made headlines in places like Toronto and Vancouver, is alive and well in the the Yukon.

The vacancy rate for rental accommodations of all types and sizes, according to the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, was three per cent. The next survey results, due to be tabulated in April will be interesting, because anecdotally, the market seems even tighter than that.

The median monthly rent, per the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, was $986, and has been rising steadily since 2012. The average home sale price actually dropped in 2016, but it was from a largely unaffordable $425,200 to a still-largely-unaffordable $420,300.

All signs point to a major uptick in the mining industry. Exploration is projected to increase this summer, majors are buying into promising properties, and several advanced projects are moving through the regulatory regime.

Broadly speaking, this is good economic news. But the Yukon already boasts Canada’s lowest unemployment rate, and a mining boom will mean an influx of new workers. Some of these will live in camps, while others will be fly-in workers. Many will enter the housing market and drive demand — and prices — even higher.

The experience of the northern Australian city of Darwin, which underwent a boom driven by a major liquefied natural gas project, was recorded in the journal Human Geographies in 2013. Australian researchers found Darwin’s rental vacancy rate plummeted to 0.6 per cent during the first 12 months of the boom, forcing median rental prices for houses to increase 27.3 per cent during the first 12 months of the boom, and apartment rents up 15.2 per cent during the same period. (The boom has now gone bust and housing prices are falling, but still higher than they were pre-boom.)

The researchers found that Indigenous people, refugees, single parents, youth and people with disabilities ended up spending a greater share of their income on rent and were more likely to end up homeless, having been priced out of the rental market.

This experience has been repeated time and again. Petroleum booms in Williston, North Dakota, and Fort McMurray caused massive housing shortages, plus major increases in crime and huge pressures on existing police, infrastructure and social services.

Again, this is not an argument against mining. It is a central pillar of our economy and one of the ways we pay for the quality of life most of us are fortunate enough to enjoy. It is an argument for foresight and caution: the Australian researchers found that consultation and planning could reduce the undesirable socio-economic impacts of major resource booms.

There are a few encouraging signs of action: As the News reported this week, Challenge Disability Resource Group wants to build up to 48 affordable units downtown. In its budget tabled April 27, the territorial government announced a package of housing-related spending, including $1.5 million for the First Nations Housing Program, $1 million in matching funds for rental construction and $500,000 to support Habitat for Humanity projects. The federal government’s most recent budget included $24 million in Yukon-specific housing funds, although that money is spread out over 11 years.

In Dawson City, which is prone to major seasonal housing shortages during the summer, a new not-for-profit nine-unit building aimed at middle-income earners will open in June.

Meanwhile, the City of Whitehorse is beginning to embark on its most recent planning process. This is an opportunity for the city to encourage densification, especially in the downtown core, and infill, which would bring more housing units located close to services and jobs. City council must resist the temptation to kowtow to residents demanding NIMBYism and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).

The Silver government also budgeted $9.8 million for new lots in Whistle Bend, including 79 lots that will come on the market this year.

But $400,000-plus houses don’t do much to solve the affordability problem, even if they do help increase supply. All levels of government need to ensure that new housing is available for Yukoners of every income level.

Worthwhile as these various initiatives may be, the units they create will take years to come onto the market. The private sector has found it largely uneconomical to build rental apartments lately, so it’s up to the public sector, which is not known for working fast, to get new units on the market. Time is of the essence.

For Megan Breen, none of these projects will solve her immediate problem. If nothing comes up, her family’s last resort is to stay in a camper until they can find a place.

Breen’s story is all too familiar to many Yukoners. Without quick action, it’s one that will become even more common.

Contact Chris Windeyer at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

9 Comments

Max Mack wrote:
3:54pm Wednesday May 3, 2017

Blaming “Nimbyism” is typical behaviour of those that can’t tolerate analysis or debate, as though densification is the only logical solution to a housing “shortage” of any kind.  This seems like such a faux argument to me, considering the vast amount of land available in the Yukon.

Chris Windeyer fails to consider the enormous regulatory burden being imposed on builders, costs which must be passed onto renters. Given these steep upfront capital cost, very low rates of return on their investment, and inherent uncertainties of the rental market, investors have realized its better to build and sell (as potential purchasers have relatively easy access to cheap credit) vs build and rent. Renting is, as they say, passe . . . unless it involves considerable subsidies from the public purse.

Densification and infill bring a host of negative issues. Unfortunately, we, the public, have been falsely lead to believe that densification is the only acceptable solution our housing woes.

Carbon neutral wrote:
11:02pm Saturday April 29, 2017

Is this a housing crisis, or a rental accommodation crisis? It’s curious to me that so few developers are interested in rental accommodation. I mean, I get it in a way, except that rentals do offer long-term income opportunities. There’s obvious disadvantages, too, but I can’t help thinking that it’s also due to developers don’t necessarily see themselves here to manage them for years.

The tone of this editorial is off-putting. It’s not a new problem, more like a cyclical one. This kind of remark “City council must resist the temptation to kowtow to residents demanding NIMBYism and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything)” is pretty simplistic. Residents can’t stop much if the market forces are that compelling, but they can help moderate ideology. A $400,000 house might not solve the family’s problem, but I doubt if a 400 sq. ft. condo would help a five-person family with pets either.

British Columbia’s recent research about the number of empty houses in the province is fascinating, but it took them long enough to consider other factors; blaming so-called NIMBYism is so much easier than digging a little deeper.

Christine Shaw wrote:
1:23pm Saturday April 29, 2017

One of the doorways left gaping open which enables the exacerbation of this issue is the fact that there are no caps on rental increase amounts within the territory whether tax paying, with or without kids or dogs, or having lived and contributed to the community of Yukon for decades. All renters can legally be ‘priced out’ within a short time. What could possibly motivate landlords not to take full advantage of this? Nothing. What do politicians stand to gain by addressing the difficulties this poses for average people? Nothing. Unless protecting the community from erosion matters. (Ha!) Here’s hoping the Yukon is just as great without the 50% of current Yukoners who rent.

Kim wrote:
9:45am Saturday April 29, 2017

The private sector hasn’t been building because there’s no money in low-cost housing for them.  The real estate lobby in Whitehorse has zero interest in affordable housing, they are most interested in selling million dollar condos with a prime view of the 98 hotel.  Landlords want to maximize their profits, so due to the lack of regulation manage to rent substandard accomodations to desperate people, then block all attempts to force them to do the maintenance they are required to do.  This is also, despite the reporter’s shock, NOT a new problem.  It’s at least twenty years old.  How about reporting on the lack of progress, as opposed to acting like it’s a new problem twice a year?

FreDia wrote:
8:05am Saturday April 29, 2017

Get Real is absolutely correct. When we came here many years ago the situation was worse and there was far less taxpayer support. We managed. Lifestyle choices require personal responsibility. Grow up accept responsibility for your choices and the consequences. Do not expect someone else to bail you out or provide you with benefits that you haven’t earned yourself.

Get Real wrote:
10:46pm Friday April 28, 2017

Yes, Whitehorse is a high cost of living area - this should be no surprise to anyone who has done their due diligence in researching such things BEFORE moving here! No one is forced to live here, or anywhere else, yet I commonly hear people spouting this victim mentality rhetoric.

Additionally, children and pets are OPTIONAL components of a person’s lifestyle. An individual cannot rely on the good graces of others if they have dependents of that nature. Don’t own your own home? Maybe you shouldn’t be having kids and pets until you do.

Rather than blaming “the system” or the government for our problems, it’s much more effective to change our own habits. If you cannot change the game, change the way you play it. We can’t rely on tax payer funding or good will to solve our domestic crises.

ml wrote:
6:05pm Friday April 28, 2017

So true!  Resource extraction ‘booms’ are not good for communities on the way up, or on the way down.  It’s like a smash and grab most of the time.

renter wrote:
5:08pm Friday April 28, 2017

the best way for gov’t to provide for affordable housing, is to reduce land/lot prices. Then in turn the builders would be better suited to offer lower priced housing. I’d bet that a big factor in the high house prices is the lot prices that builders are forced to pay to the city/YG.

Jackie wrote:
4:35pm Friday April 28, 2017

My family is struggling to find adequate rental accommodations as well, like many and was hard to hear the mat the territory is going to spend $59 million on a building to house our city transit busses. apparently busses are more important then people.

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