The Whitehorse Star: Bright picture forecast for affordable housing

Posted

Palak Mangat, The Whitehorse Star, June 14 (with mention of BCNPHA)

A Yellowknife-based affordable housing consultant calls the territory “well-positioned” to tackle the issue of affordable housing in the coming years.

That’s thanks in large part to the federal government’s $40-billion plan unveiled last November.

Sandra Turner, with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC), said that the Yukon has been fortunate to have partners and developments keen on addressing the concerns.

An affordable housing consultant with CMHC for more than two decades, she has worked in areas like Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories.

The territory “is very well-positioned to take on some of the new funding that will become available under the new housing strategy,” she told the Star Wednesday.

Her comments come on the heels of the northern Regional Education Networking Tradeshow held Tuesday in Whitehorse. It saw the Yukon Housing Corp. (YHC) and the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association host the northern event for the first time.

Turner noted that the territorial government stated its intention to create a 10-year Housing Action Plan back in 2013, four years before the federal strategy was announced, before revealing it in 2015.

She praised part of that plan for focusing on a common concern of the rising price of houses.

“What we’re seeing most is the affordability problem in Whitehorse,” Turner said, adding that “the rates of housing are going up and vacancy rates getting tight,” even when it comes to renting.

Turner cited the CMHC’s definition of affordability as paying more than 30 per cent of your total income on shelter or rent costs.

“The need and demand is real, but there’s an aging stock here that’s part of the problem,” she said.

With changing demographics of older Yukoners and younger workforces and a mining industry expected to take off in the coming years, she noted that some are simply just not able to find housing that fits their needs anymore.

And while it’s passable here in Whitehorse, smaller communities in the territory may have it harder.

“You’d be hard-pressed probably in any of those places” to find a place to live, she added.

But there is hope, she said. Turner pointed to organizations like the Ta’an Kwach’an Council-owned Da Daghay Development Corp. as a local success story.

It is behind projects like the River Bend housing development, which will see more than 40 units in the Whistle Bend area. It’s expected to be completed later this year.

“Many Indigenous groups here have land so they’re a very sought-after partner,” Turner said, noting that in an area where there’s already a lack of land and aging housing, undeveloped land becomes even more attractive.

“That’s what we need to get our minds and our wallets behind,” said Kevin Albers, noting that at times, it boils down to putting your money where your mouth is.

Albers was another presenter at the event. He serves as the CEO of the M’akola Group, one of the largest Aboriginal affordable housing developers and providers in British Columbia.

He said the province can learn a lot from the territory about an issue that’s been festering for quite some time now.

“Significant investments have to be made to turn the tide on this issue that’s been developing for decades,” he said.

While he praised the 10-year-plan, Albers hoped attendees were able to see that now is the time to leverage that and make strategic choices with the money available.

He added that individualized approaches are also key.

“There’s no one size fits all,” he said, contrasting the territory’s 14 self-governing First Nations with B.C.’s reserve set-up.

Albers said that with collaboration, he expects the country to “end up finally wrestling this thing to the ground.”

Available money could be best spent on simply increasing supply, he said.

Another calculated but simple approach, Turner added, is creating higher-density dwellings, which can make a huge difference in smaller communities across the territory.

“Then they’re getting four units on one piece of property. They’re so expensive, that’s how you leverage it,” she said, adding that the scheduling of developments was also important.

She hopes the government will continue to take into consideration the status of other projects on the horizon.

This can help in two respects: make sure there is not a labour shortage during a specific time period then an influx of unemployed workers, and better combine funding from different sources.

“These are all little hoops we have to jump through,” Turner said, noting that the N.W.T. was stretched for workers following the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta two years ago.

While the “Yukon has a pretty good capacity in terms of their labour pool here, it’s going to have to be very planned and co-ordinated so that not everybody’s building at the same time,” she said.

In terms of funding, Turner said some organizations may not be aware of just how many resources there are out there.

A discussion she co-led with the YHC’s vice-president, Mary Cameron, “spoke about how we can stack the programs together, that’s something we were never able to do before.”

The CMHC’s seed funding program to cover “soft costs” for example, could be combined with the City of Whitehorse’s municipal matching grant that’s administered by the YHC.

Because the CMHC partly funds the YHC, it used to be “seen as coming out of the same pocket.

“It’s no longer seen that way, they need money coming from both places to make the project work,” Turner said.

She predicted that partnerships between First Nations and governments like Da Daghay has formed will continue to be useful for the territory.

“They have land that they can actually build on but they don’t necessarily have maybe the capacity,” said Turner, adding that’s when “somebody that can actually do the building, design, and figure it all out” can get involved.

“People are understanding the process and money is coming now too, all of a sudden,” she laughed.

Albers agreed that the federal strategy was a long time coming.

“These short-term solutions that have been tried over the years just never really seemed to get enough traction,” he said, adding that “we’re kind of in unchartered territory because we’ve been doing it wrong for so long.”

Meanwhile, Cameron confirmed Wednesday that attendees were also able to tour housing sites like Blood Ties Four Directions’ Steve Cardiff Tiny Home Community and Da Daghay’s River Bend site, among others.

Turner said the territory’s housing efforts in the coming years would be best focused on developing smaller areas like these, something that shouldn’t be to difficult given the relative population.

“We’re not an urban centre, we don’t have hundreds of thousands of people … like the Torontos or Vancouvers,” she said, adding that “we need to foster those little projects too.”

Areas like Haines Junction, Carcross and Dawson City could be specific targets, she concluded.

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