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News archive for December 27, 2013

Rates will have to stay ‘affordable’ for a decade

The Yukon Housing Corp. has received a flood of responses to its call for affordable housing proposals, a vice-president said this week.

By Christopher Reynolds on December 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm

The Yukon Housing Corp. has received a flood of responses to its call for affordable housing proposals, a vice-president said this week.

“This is a fairly remarkable number of submissions,” Michael Hale, the vice-president of operations, said of the 22 private contractors and NGOs which came forward with quotes on constructing and operating rental homes for low-income residents across the territory.

The proposals are part of a $26-million plan to build lower-rent units to deal with the Yukon’s housing shortage, an approach opposition parties generally encourage but whose specifics they denounce.

Six project proposals for the communities and 16 for Whitehorse landed on the Yukon Housing desk before the request for qualifications closed Dec. 10.

“With this, we ensure that for the next decade there’s going to be affordable rentals for people, and that’s one of the areas that we know is what people are struggling with,” Hale said in an interview Monday.

The next step, expected to begin in January, will be to evaluate the submissions and select 10 of the companies and NGOs to complete more detailed proposals.

Some or all of these will be chosen for construction, yielding houses and apartment units that would remain for rent at “affordable rates” for at least 10 years, Hale said.

After that, the contractors or NGOs behind the units — the government will have no ownership role— could ratchet up the rental price or convert them into condos.

“The markets will determine what the owners could do with the units after the 10 years,” said cabinet spokesperson Elaine Schiman.

It is too early to predict how many Yukoners will find homes under the plan.

Preliminary proposals have been put forward for Whitehorse, Dawson City, Carcross, Carmacks and Watson Lake.

“This initiative encourages partnerships that work together to create additional affordable housing in the territory,” said Brad Cathers, the minister responsible for Yukon Housing.

The territorial government has pledged the $13 million remaining in its Northern Housing Trust, with proponents providing the other half of the projects’ funding.

“We are basically doubling the investment,” Hale said. “No one has built that scale of affordable rental in decades.”

The housing corporation has adopted the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s definition of “affordable.”

That means the rental rates must remain at or below 95 per cent of the median rate — $875 monthly for Whitehorse in June 2013, the highest on record.

Kate White, the NDP’s housing critic, said the “government-private partnership is a fantastic idea,” but criticized the plan’s long-term direction.

“My biggest concern is that after 10 years, there’s no guarantee that (the rental units) are going to remain affordable,” said the Takhini-Kopper King MLA.

She added the 50-50 funding partnership could have been structured differently to allow for a longer period of mandatory affordable rent.

“Zero-interest loans and low-interest loans are one way this could have been incentivized to make sure they were low-rent for longer.”

White also questioned the government’s focus on affordable housing over low-barrier housing or shelters.

“Affordable housing is critical, but the minister of housing can’t even use the word ‘homeless,’” she said.

“And if the government can’t acknowledge that there’s a population that needs zero-barrier housing and have real difficulty getting jobs, then we’re always going to leave people out in the cold.

“And that is a big deal for me.”

Hale readily admitted the project focused on those with a slightly higher income bracket than the homeless.

“We are targeting affordable, not social. It seems like a small distinction,” he said.

“We’re trying to target that group who are employed single mothers, employed single families, people who are just on that edge who want single-unit.”

There currently 650 social housing units in the Yukon.

White also referred to the failure of “lot 262,” a proposed rental complex backed by the government in 2012.

“I was told repeatedly that it was going to be the answer to the housing crisis in the Yukon ... and it flopped, because everyone who proposed was not going to put up money for the lot.”

In the spring of 2012, the government tendered a project that was to include 30 affordable rental units to be developed near the intersection of Range Road and Mountainview Drive.

The project, to be funded largely through the Northern Housing Trust, was abandoned after the government received only two bids.

At the time Cathers, then minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, said neither bid met the minimum requirements. Both asked for subsidies beyond the scope of the tender, he said.

The Northern Housing Trust, launched by the federal government in 2006, doled out $50 million to the Yukon government, which allocated $32.5 million to housing in First Nations communities.

The remaining $17.5 million sat initially in territorial government coffers.

Betty’s Haven, a second-stage housing project for women and their children fleeing abuse, received $4.5 million of those funds.

The 10-unit facility opened along Fourth Avenue in Whitehorse in September 2013, next to Kaushee’s Place, the women’s shelter.

Sandy Silver, the interim leader of the Liberal party, raised frustrations in October that the government had been sitting on the Northern Housing Trust money for years.

“Any time you asked in the legislative assembly, ‘why aren’t you spending this money?’ the answers that we got back, all opposition parties got back, was that ‘this is complicated; you can’t just spend this money, it’s earmarked for very specific funding,’” Silver said.

“If you’re going to get a request for qualifications, that should have happened seven years ago. But we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for them to give us a plan, and then at the very last possible phase, they say, ‘well, here’s our plan, we’re back to square one,” said the Klondike MLA.

“This comes down to Yukon Party government classic mismanagement of capital money.”

The vacancy rate in Whitehorse was 1.4 per cent this year, barely budging from last year’s 1.3 per cent, according to the Yukon Bureau of Statistics.

Whitehorse’s unprecedented median rent of $875 compares with a housing allowance of around $540.

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