The Housing Situation in Canada’s North Is Dire

Apartments are scarce in Whitehorse, Yukon, and renters without government salaries are feeling priced out.

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Dec 4 2018, 8:08pm

Whitehorse photo by Gareth Sloan/Wikimedia Commons

Bachelor suite. No pets. $900 a month.

One-bedroom suite. No pets. Two references. First and Last required immediately. $1,200 a month.

Yurt for rent. No electricity. No running water. Thirty minutes outside of town. No bus route. No internet service. $600 a month.

These are real ads from the Facebook page Whitehorse Yukon Property Rentals. The territory has been facing a severe housing shortage for several years, creating a competitive, costly market for renters and putting pressure on low-to-lower-middle income residents.

The vacancy rate for all types of units as of April 2018 was 3.4 percent, up from 2.8 percent in October of 2017 according to the most recent report released by the Yukon Bureau of Statistics. According to the same report, if you’re looking for a one-bedroom apartment, the vacancy rate drops to just 1.9 percent; you should expect to pay around $950 a month before utilities, although a quick glance at the available units shows the price for a private unit—ie, not a rented room in a house—to be closer to $1,200 a month.

Yukon has a population of around 40,000 people, most of whom live in Whitehorse, so when speaking about vacancy rates you are talking about a much lower number of available units than you would be in more densely populated areas with similar vacancy rates. To think about this in terms of real-world numbers, that 1.9 percent vacancy rate translates to 37 unoccupied apartments from the 882 units the report says exists in the entire territory.

Scarcity aside, the sheer cost of what is available is a barrier to housing for many people, as market affordability is skewed by the high proportion of government workers in the territory. As of September 2018, 41.3 percent of the workforce was employed by one of four (First Nation, territorial, municipal or federal) levels of government; the average worker employed by the Yukon government makes $81,000 a year. By contrast, at $11.51 an hour the Yukon has the lowest minimum wage among the territories.

The combination of high demand and low availability has created a viciously competitive housing market, allowing landlords to charge high rents and forcing renters to take what they can get. One recent Facebook post on the closed group Yukon Whitehorse Property Rentals shows a small room with a mattress on the floor with a plastic, fold-out table of the kind typically used at yard sales, mismatched linen and a tiny closet with a shared kitchen and bathroom. It’s $700 a month, which means that a worker making minimum wage would have to work nearly 62 hours, before deductions, to afford it.

“The (income) disparity between those who work in government and those who do not continues to grow,” Meg Grudeski, housing navigator for the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition (YAPC), told VICE.

“Why is housing such a pinch? It’s a mind-boggling experience that housing has been such an issue for every decade in the last 40 years.”

The Yukon Bureau of Statistics notes that, over the last 10 years, the median rent for all types of rentals has increased by $250, before utilities. Not having utilities covered in the rent is a large expense, as houses here need to be heated much longer than they do in southern climates, often from the end of August into the beginning of May. The price to rent a home with three bedrooms or more has nearly doubled, going from an average of $850 in 2008 to $1,600 in April 2018.

That’s just the kind of home Yukon local Megan Breen needs for herself, her three young kids, one dog and her partner. Breen works two jobs as a server in Whitehorse and her partner works full-time for the government. The family has moved four times since June 2018, she says, because they have been unable to find acceptable housing they can afford. (Full disclosure: I previously worked with Breen in a restaurant.)

In June 2017, the owner of the house they had been renting for the last three years told them they wanted to sell the property and so they needed to move, she says. They looked for four months, but couldn’t find anything in their price range they could afford that was pet-friendly. The family was about to move into their motorhome for want of something else, but the owners gave them a reprieve of a year and they were able to stay, but had to keep looking for something else during that time.

“The stress of not finding a place took a toll,” Breen says. “We continued to look for a year and went to several viewings but as soon as we mentioned we had pets we never got a call back. We were forced to move our stuff into storage and (my partner’s) grandmother went and stayed at her sister’s place down south so we could stay at her place.”

“It’s been a struggle living out of boxes with three kids, and it’s taking a toll on my relationship… Not being able to be in a regular routine, constantly moving around. It’s exhausting. (My kids) complain to me all the time they are so tired and they just want to live in a nice house and stay in it for a long time.”

After a couple months the family found a place in the suburbs that would let them have pets. They stayed for two weeks before giving their notice, she says, due to severe mold issues at the property. In November, they moved into her partner’s step-mother’s house, who stayed at a cabin so they could be there. The family moved into a new place December 1, but it’s only available until May 2019.

“The market is ridiculous. It’s designed for a family with a double government or city income… the last place we were in was so run down and full of mold. Now everything in the rental market is going for between $2,200- $2,500… with an extra deposit on top of it. I have had several people offer me a place … but it was such a ridiculous amount of money… $2,500 a month plus utilities—who can afford that?” Breen says.

“They called our last house ‘the yucky house’ because of the mold smell. (Our current) house is ‘the sad house’ because it’s nicer but we can only stay until May.”

Breen says she and her partner are presently trying to buy a house, since they can’t find a suitable one to rent. They initially tried to go through the banks, but couldn’t get a mortgage that would allow them to buy the kind of home they need.

“We couldn’t get a mortgage that would allow us to have a decent home for five: $220,000. You can’t even buy a decent or big enough trailer for that and most banks won’t give you a mortgage for a trailer,” she says.

The couple are currently going through one of the Yukon Housing Corporation programs to try to get a loan that way. They should know by the end of the month whether or not they have been approved, she says.

The average single detached house in Whitehorse presently goes for $479,000, up 10 percent from the same time last year.

In recent years, the Yukon government has been making attempts to address the housing issue in the territory, Grudeski says, including greenlighting the territory’s first true housing-first complex, but little progress has been made to provide affordable housing for the lower to middle-lower income bracket. Building projects, she says, are often focused on higher-end development, such as condos, because those kinds of units offer higher, faster—and, therefore, more attractive—returns to investors.

Likewise, there is “perhaps a less broad understanding than maybe you would believe,” about the problems facing people of lower incomes by those of higher incomes, says Grudeksi.

“We all get biased, we all get into this zone… there’s problematic pieces of the housing issue on all levels,” she says.

In recent years, the Yukon government, in conjunction with First Nation, municipal, private and federal partners, have been working to create “incentives” for builders to create new affordable housing options, says Pamela Hine, president of the Yukon Housing Corporation. This has meant $3.6 million of territorial investment in a housing initiative fund, which gives builders “$50,000 per door created,” up to 500 units.

The initiative has already helped to fund new building developments across the territory, she says, some of which are already under way. The next call for project proposals opens January 2019, and the Yukon government estimates another 120 new affordable homes to come out of that.

Residences built under this initiative will have to be rented out “at or below median market rent” for 20 years after they are built, says Yukon Minister of Housing and Social Services Pauline Frost.

“It’s a complex and challenging issue,” Frost told VICE.

However, given that those median market rates are already high enough to be out of the range of some Yukoners, says Grudeski, the way we define “affordable” housing in this case is still problematic.

“If (solving this issue) is as simple as a policy change, why can’t the government figure it out? – that’s the great question.”

“(Building new apartments) is definitely one of those pieces where a change of policy could definitely make things easier,” says Grudeski.

“Housing solves homelessness.”

“We have to look at the housing issue from a bunch of angles… it’s not just about focusing ‘here,’” says Hine.

“I think when you’re looking at housing, you have to remember it’s not one magic answer.”

Frost is pleased with the work her government has done over the last two years, she says, and notes that regardless of initiatives, it simply takes time to put up more buildings.

“Two years ago I would have looked at the housing situation and said ‘we have one hell of a problem on our hands,'” she says. “In time, we will see more and more solutions come forward.”

Follow Lori on Twitter.

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