Photo by Whitehorse Star
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Pauline Frost, the minister responsible for the Yukon Housing Corp., occupied the hot seat for most of the legislative question period Thursday as opposing parties questioned the corporation’s movement toward more affordable housing.
Issues were taken by the Official opposition and NDP on alleged evictions at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter and funding for the Challenge Disability Resource Group housing project.
The opposition also raised empty units currently in the possession of the territorial government during a rental housing crisis.
“The reality is that this government has not done enough to provide affordable housing options for Yukoners,” said NDP Leader Kate White.
Fellow NDP member Liz Hanson looked to Frost for answers on the rumoured evictions of individuals living in the transitional units at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter. The facility is located in Hanson’s Whitehorse Centre riding.
Hanson asked Frost if the 22 transitional units are currently occupied.
Frost responded that nine of the citizens living in transitional housing were moved to permanent housing. She did not tell the house how many transitional units, if any, are currently occupied.
She said the government’s promised Housing First units, planned as permanent housing for vulnerable people without requiring abstinence from drugs or alcohol, will be fully operational in November.
Hanson told media after question period that there has been a lack of clarity on the current state of housing programming at the shelter.
“We had heard this summer that all of the people in the transition units had been evicted, and we have been unable to substantiate that,” Hanson said. “We were trying to put an opportunity for the minister to explain to us.”
The NDP member conceded the Liberal government inherited a “dreadful” shelter design, making it more difficult to implement positive change.
“I think the issue appeared to be there’s been some flux in how the programming is rolling out.”
Yukon Party MLA Geraldine Van Bibber put forward a question regarding the lack of funding for the Challenge Disability Resource Group affordable housing project and its planned 53 units on Main Street.
The Star reported last July that the project was moving toward its inception with a tender planned for November and construction to begin in April 2020.
Van Bibber noted Premier Sandy Silver pledged $4 million to the project in his 2019 budget speech last spring. The fall supplementary budget, however, cut the funding.
Frost responded that the budget was adjusted to realign with the Resource Group’s revamped timeline. (See story on supplementary budget.)
“We are in an affordable housing crisis, and if this project isn’t ready to go, the government should be looking at other options,” Van Bibber said.
She asked why the $4 million was not reallocated to other projects for affordable housing.
Silver said his government would not “pivot” between projects without planning, and his government is still committed to completing the project.
Kristina Craig, the executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, told the Star this morning the $4 million probably could have been utilized elsewhere this year. The compressed timeline, however, poses a challenge to the realignment of funding.
“It’s not that … people in the community don’t have ideas about what’s needed, and how to get it,” Craig said. “I think there is an issue around what is shovel-ready.”
Craig pointed out that if replacement projects were not at the ready, the government could not reasonably begin consultations halfway through the fiscal year without also pushing those projects into subsequent years.
For Craig, the question is why there is a lack of projects lined up to take the place of the Resource Group project.
She suggested earlier consultation with the Yukon Housing Corp., First Nations governments and communities could have resulted in initiatives ready to receive funding.
“It is a known fact we do not have enough of the right kind of housing within our spectrum in Whitehorse and across the territory,” Craig said.
“I would hope that because that is undisputed now, that there are opportunities to support it.”
The territorial government has committed to a number of initiatives to implement the housing action plan, Frost told the house Thursday.
She said steps taken by her department have added 400 homes to the Yukon thanks to repair, renovation and development initiatives.
She said partnerships formed with the private sector, other governments and non-government organizations have helped address the crisis.
“I am very proud of that work and we will continue to ensure that we partner with Yukoners to bring the homes and services that they need to their communities,” Frost said.
NDP Leader Kate White questioned the Liberal government’s hold of a vacant housing unit for the last 10 months, as reported by the RUSH (radio station CKRW) in September.
“The fact that this government has livable units sitting unoccupied while Yukoners are homeless or living precariously is unacceptable,” White said.
Frost responded that the government “endeavour(s) not to have any houses sit vacant” and her department is prioritizing housing for seniors and Yukoners with medical needs. Policies are currently being amended to “provide a better balance” for staff and social housing.
She described “significant challenges” to housing in Yukon communities, specifically mentioning a recently closed private facility in Watson Lake, displacing a number of citizens there.
White accused Frost of taking too light an approach on the affordable housing crisis.
“There is a pretty glaring trend with this government,” she said.
“Policy options that have the potential to benefit low-income Yukoners are watered down or outright eliminated while those that benefit high-income Yukoners breeze on through.”
White criticized the government for not adopting a raised minimum wage and providing basic protections for mobile-homeowners.
Craig told the Star the lack of an immediately raised minimum wage is an example of delayed movement on low-income issues by the government.
“(It) is a pretty good example of where the government could take leadership right from the get-go,” she said. “I think the current government is doing better than some previous governments have done in at least recognizing these are issues we need to be grappling with.”
She added Yukoners should not lose sight of movement made on affordability, in spite of criticism.
“I do think strides are being made,” she said.
“I think sometimes we have a tendency to not recognize progress when we actually see it. For some of us who have been at this for a long time, we have seen a shift, and that’s positive.”
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