Whitehorse ‘slums’ raise rent
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
The smell assaults you.
Wafts of cat urine and cigarette smoke flow from the ripped and stained carpet in the hallways of the Skyline Apartments in Riverdale.
The puke-yellow rug dates from when the apartments were built in the mid-‘70s.
Before the second flight of stairs, a railing hangs broken.
On the next landing, there’s a hole in the wall.
A purple, construction-paper circle is taped to a door to help Kristina Rough’s seven-year-old, 3 1/2-year-old, and eventually her one-year-old find their way home.
Few others need the directions.
Friends of the mother of three don’t really come over to visit anymore, she said, raising her shoulders and eyebrows and shaking her head slightly.
Instead, her friends insist she come to their homes to visit.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” said Rough.
Carrying groceries up those stairs to her apartment is significantly more difficult with small children on her hips. Rough won’t allow her one-year-old, or the other small children she babysits, to crawl up the stairs. She carries them instead.
The thought of the children using their hands to help them climb the stairs, like small children do, makes Rough shudder.
“It’s gross,” she said plainly.
In the summer of 2009, Rough jumped at the opportunity to get into the Skyline Apartments, she said.
She and her husband had just separated and it was hard to find an affordable place to live. When she and her husband moved out of their old place, the landlord had changed the rent from $775 to $1,200 per month, she said.
Rough had already spent two weeks couch surfing and camping with her two children, both under the age of five at the time, when a friend told her he could get her into the Skyline.
“I was very grateful,” she said. “I still am. It’s a roof over my head and it lets me provide for my children.”
So, Rough looked past the hole she found in the living room wall, the black mould crawling up the shower and around the bathtub and the state of the hallway carpets and moved in immediately.
Three years later, the hole, the mould and the carpets remain. Added to those concerns is a list of other repairs and problems that have gone unattended to, she said.
On top of that, Rough and other residents in the building have just received notice that their rent will be increased for the second time in nine months.
Rough’s $775 per month rent will jump to $875 per month by September 1, the notice reads.
It already went up by $50 a month last October, said Rough.
“I’m not really against the rent getting increased,” she said, pointing out that the cost of living continues to rise. “But when nothing gets done…”
She stood on her balcony, and pointed to the soffits hanging from the balcony above hers.
In her children’s room, where the two oldest sleep in bunk beds, she pointed at the insulation peeking out around the window. There’s no window frame and in the winter, at least half of the glass is covered with ice, she said.
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
In the living room, on the same wall as the hole, an electrical outlet is covered in duct tape.
Only one of the two outlets actually works, and the duct tape is there to stop the kids from getting electrocuted by the exposed wires, said Rough.
“I have no problem going and doing things myself, but once you start looking at the amount of stuff and nothing is getting done, at what point do I say, ‘enough!’” said Rough.
Already, the young mother has bought new “peel-and-stick” hardwood flooring for the bathroom after her second child continually cut his feet on the ripped linoleum that was there when she moved in.
She has also replaced the fridge after living for a year and a half with towels on the kitchen floor because the fridge was leaking puddles, she said.
Rough still often needs to put towels around the edges of the front door so the marijuana smoke from her neighbours doesn’t fill up her own apartment, she said.
The main lock at the building’s entrance is most worrisome. It doesn’t work.
“Anyone can just walk right in,” said Rough. And it’s been like that for some time.
Generally, the neighbours within her block of the 45-unit apartment building look out for each other, she said.
One of her neighbours vacuums their common hallway on a regular basis and sprays air freshener. Another neighbour fixes the stairways’ railings for her kids and another keeps a diligent eye on the parking lot, trying to make sure vandals don’t come by with baseball bats like they have in the past, Rough added.
“I don’t really want to raise my kids in a place like this,” she said. “But I’m not in a place where I can afford to buy a house.”
Any other apartment that could house Rough’s young family would be out of her price range, she said.
Rough has looked around. The average three-bedroom apartment goes for $1,800 to $2,200 per month. The part-time cook would definitely need to work full time to afford that. If she worked full time, however, Rough would have to find the money to pay for over $2,000 in daycare fees each month for her three children, she said.
“It’s a difficult situation for everyone,” said Ken Schick.
Schick, who used to rent an apartment in the building, works for Tummel Holdings, the company that has owned the property since 1995.
None of the multiple proprietors of the company live in the Yukon, Schick said.
“Currently, we’re one of the lowest rents and one of the only places still allowing pets,” he said. “It’s an older building. Routinely, I try to get to everything as soon as I can. There’s always something. And when it’s fixed, it gets redamaged. That’s the nature of the beast with low-income.”
Schick has an explanation for every concern Rough listed. Multiple attempts to fix the hole in the wall have been postponed, he said. He can’t find anyone who can fix the lock on the main door. The black mould is nothing out of the ordinary and he’s never received any complaints about people’s health.
Rough admits, when her 3 1/2-year-old year old was hospitalized for three days with bronchitis in January, she didn’t complain to Schick.
“It could have been a number of things,” she said. Maybe it was the mould. Maybe it was the smoke that seeps in through the hallways. Maybe it was just going around.
“We work within what we have to work with,” said Schick, adding that these rent increases have been put off for 13 years.
But low-income shouldn’t mean you have to settle for a slum, said Sonny Gray, a property manager for numerous rental units in Whitehorse, including the Kontiki Apartments across the street from the Skyline.
“The Skyline - that building is filthy,” he said. “That friggin’ thing should be condemned. The place is disgusting. I will not step foot in it. And the exterior’s just as bad. There’s garbage all over the place and you’d think the city would clamp down on that. It’s not like it’s hidden anywhere. It’s in Riverdale. It’s right there in broad daylight.
“But the city’s not going to rock the boat. You could put in a bylaw saying it can’t look like this. And you could send in inspectors to say units should meet a certain code. But the city won’t do anything because ultimately these guys are running low-cost housing. So the city doesn’t have to pick up on it.”
Apart from an outdoor maintenance bylaw, the city has nothing to do with rental standards. That falls under the Landlord and Tenant Act, which is territorial legislation, said city planning manager Mike Gau.
And those laws, which haven’t been significantly changed since the Skyline Apartments were built in the ‘70s, don’t really a have a place to take, or enforce, complaints. The only real option is court, said Matt King, spokesman for the Department of Community Services.
Rough knows that, she’s looked into it. And court fees aren’t really in her budget.
But even if the government does clamp down on Schick and his employers, the building will get cleaned and even renovated, but at the cost of renters, like Rough, said Gray.
Looking from her balcony, Rough points to the Kontiki Apartments where she and her ex-husband used to live.
“Why is it that an apartment five metres away can be maintained enough so I feel clean and secure but I can’t here?” she asked. “Enough is enough. I’m just tired of it. What I really want to see is just someone taking responsibility.”
*Editor’s note: since the News spoke with Rough and Schick, the building’s front door lock, the soffits on Rough’s balcony and the hole in Rough’s living room wall have been fixed.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at