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Housing in Yukon: An election issue with no clear solution

It’s an issue that’s come up throughout the federal election campaign in Yukon — affordability. More specifically, the affordability of housing.

Houses for sale in Whitehorse’s Whistle Bend subdivision. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

It’s an issue that’s come up throughout the federal election campaign in Yukon — affordability. More specifically, the affordability of housing.

Real estate in Whitehorse is booming, and has been for a while. House prices have been on a steady upward climb in recent years. Rentals are hard to come by.

The most recent data from the Yukon Bureau of Statistics put the average house sale price in Whitehorse in the second quarter of 2019 at a record-high $529,500 — a 10.5 per cent increase from a year earlier. The average condo went for $354,700.

“We have a shortage of affordable housing — entry-level type housing,” said Marc Perreault, president of the Yukon Real Estate Association.

“It pushes people into having to buy homes that are more expensive than they would like to, or could, or can. And it pushes the prices up because people are getting the prices they’re asking for homes … we’ve seen it for years now, and it’s a difficult issue to address.”

For Cory Levasseur and his partner, it was enough to drive them out of the territory. They originally moved up from Ontario last year when his partner found work in Yukon as a firefighter, but after a year they reluctantly decided to go back.

Cory Levasseur and his partner moved to Yukon but left after a year, as housing was ‘next to impossible’ to find. (Submitted BY Cory Levasseur)

“To just find a, you know, just a house or apartment that would be affordable on our budget, it was next to impossible to find,” Levasseur said.

“It was bittersweet. I did not want to leave — at all. And I still think about it every day.”

‘A continuum of housing’

For Meg Grudeski, housing coordinator for the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, it’s not just a matter of building more houses — although that’s part of it.

She says Yukon simply does not have enough options for people with varied needs and financial resources.   

Housing is growing as an issue as we see income disparity continue to expand — so the gap between folks who are on fixed income or low income, and folks who aren’t, is getting larger,” Grudeski said.

“There is a continuum of housing that needs to be available.” 

‘Housing is growing as an issue as we see income disparity continue to expand,’ said Meg Grudeski with the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

That also means looking beyond Whitehorse, she says. Some people in Whitehorse may want to move back to their home communities, where housing is more affordable — but they won’t if it means they can’t access the services they need.

“People have to make very difficult decisions,” she said.

Grudeski thinks it’s something the federal government should take seriously, and partner with local governments to find solutions. 

Doris Bill, chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse, agrees.  

“Affordable housing is really a big issue in the territory. And I just really hope that whichever federal party gets in and forms government would make it a priority,” she said.

“It’s a community problem and we all need to be a part of the solution.”

‘I just really hope that whichever federal party gets in and forms government would make it a priority,’ said Doris Bill, chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Some in Whitehorse, including the Real Estate Association, have high hopes for the First Nation’s plan to offer up land for lease on its territory. That could happen by next year.

But Bill says that’s not the whole solution.

“It’s not. It’s maybe a portion of the solution, but there are other solutions out there that we need to explore,” she said.

“Housing Yukoners is not Kwanlin Dün’s problem. It is everyone’s problem. And government has a role in that.”  

Candidates weigh in

Yukon’s federal candidates were asked for their take. They were asked how big of an issue they think housing is, and what solutions they might propose. 

Campaign signs in Whitehorse. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Here are some of their emailed statements, provided to Radio-Canada. They have been edited for length.

Larry Bagnell, Liberal

“As I have said through out the campaign, the most important issues are climate change and housing.

“We have already funded a number of housing projects in the Yukon, both in Whitehorse and the communities. We have over 25 housing or homelessness initiatives with Yukon First Nations. But there is much more to do. 

“Starting in 2020, we will implement the Canada Housing Benefit, a program that will assist over 300,000 families and provide an estimated average of $2,500 per year to each household that is having difficulty affording their rental payments. 

“Budget 2019 introduced the First Time Homebuyer’s incentive, to help 100,000 first time home buyers, by having the federal government purchase up to 10 per cent of their mortgage, thus making their mortgage payment lower. 

“We have also announced, that we would provide up to $40,000 interest free loans to up to 1.5 million Canadians to make their homes more energy and cost efficient, thus more affordable.”

Justin Lemphers, NDP 

“Access to housing is a critically important issue in Yukon. Without a safe place to call home, people are increasingly vulnerable and living at risk. 

“A New Democrat government will partner with provinces, territories, and municipalities to create half a million units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. This will include social housing, community, and non-market housing, as well as co-ops. We’ll make sure that affordable housing investments go to rural and northern communities too.

“We will spur the construction of affordable homes by waiving the GST in Yukon on the construction of new affordable rental units — a simple change that will help get new units built faster and keep them affordable for the long term.

“We will re-introduce 30-year terms to CMHC insured mortgages on entry-level homes for first time home buyers allowing for smaller monthly payments.

“We’ll also double the Home Buyer’s Tax Credit to $1,500 to help people with closing costs.”

Lenore Morris, Green

Housing is likely the number one local issue in Yukon. Lack of access to affordable housing is a territory-wide problem but is most acute in the First Nations communities. 

“The solution is to build new affordable housing and to renovate some of the existing housing. We need to increase our stock of public housing but I would also like to see incentives provided to private developers/builders, to build affordable housing, especially rental housing, rather than more high price condos and homes. I would also like to see this construction used as an opportunity to increase skills and capacity, in the communities in particular — to create jobs for people living there.”

Jonas Smith, Conservative

“If we are going to attract, recruit and retain the workers we need across all sectors from health care and mental health services to responsible mineral development and aviation, the access to land availability and therefore accessible housing development costs is crucial to our territory’s sustainability and self-determination.

“We are committed to tax cuts for small businesses, seniors and young families alike. We will eliminate the carbon tax and the GST on home heating fuel; a necessity here in the territory.

“I will work to ensure Yukoners have more money in their pockets, which can be allocated to their sheltering needs. 

“This, paired with what I think is one of the federal government’s largest and most important roles; which is to support Yukon First Nations governments and their respective development corporations, with their land availability process, in order to make housing development costs more attainable for Yukoners.”

Joseph Zelezny, People’s Party

“Housing is important just like everything else but more government interference is not the answer. The markets are inflated thanks to cheap debt and higher government fees and taxes. The incentives that exist in some cases due to government interference are backwards and also the value of houses reflect in part the devaluation of Canadian dollars.

“Cutting taxes and reducing the influence of government in people’s lives and repealing the economy-killing regulations like Bill C-69 and the carbon tax will enable prosperity and wage growth which will allow for a rebalancing between the value of a home and annual income. The gap is too great.

“Immigration numbers also must be reduced nationwide to reduce demand on limited supply.”

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