OPINION | Yukon's new rent-relief program is nice, but misses the point
Rent subsidies don't address the real cause of Yukon's housing crisis, says Lori Fox
Earlier this month, Yukon announced a new territorial-federal partnership designed to aid low-to-moderate income Yukoners by giving them a rent rebate. For those who qualify, the Canada-Yukon Housing Benefit provides $200, $400, $600 or $800 each month, with the amount determined by income and size of the rental unit.
This is a great initiative that may help people who really need it, and we know people do need it. In 2018, an estimated 18 per cent of households in Whitehorse couldn't afford housing at market value, and, as MLA Patti McLeod pointed out in the legislature Nov. 4, the wait list for social and seniors housing has "skyrocketed" from 105 people in July 2016 to 316 as of Oct. 13.
Unfortunately, subsidies don't address the real cause of the housing crisis.
Yukon's housing crisis is rooted in a lack of affordable rental housing, the result of long-standing mismanagement of the housing market — namely, assuming for-profit developers will build to meet affordable housing demands, despite the thresholds for what the free market will bear being artificially inflated by tremendous economic inequality in the territory.
When you have a substantial part of the market – 41.1 per cent of working Yukoners are employed by government – with so much more economic clout than many other working Yukoners, the market naturally prices itself to what the higher-earning end can and will pay. This leaves the bottom end of the market out in the cold — sometimes literally.
We need strong government housing policies that not only create more affordable housing, but manage and control the cost of it to adjust for this imbalance, such as government-enforced rent caps, building and land-use regulations that create incentives for denser, more diverse urban neighbourhoods, and quality standards for what "real" and "appropriate" housing is.
Not all housing is created equal and not all housing is appropriate for everyone; for example, under the Canada-Yukon Housing Benefit, people renting a room in a house can claim as if that room were a bachelor apartment, says Yukon Housing Corporation (YHC) spokesperson Sarah Murray.
Although affordability is an issue, availability and quality are the real problem.- Lori Fox
A room in a house, however, having a shared bathroom, kitchen and living space, does not offer the same privacy and independence as an actual bachelor apartment — a rare commodity in Whitehorse — would give to a tenant. The two are not equivalent; although affordability is an issue, availability and quality are the real problem, from which the high cost of housing stems.
A starting point to address some of these problems might be Yukon's Residential and Landlord Tenant Act, under which landlords can increase rent once a year literally as much as they want, without making improvements to the housing or even stipulating a reason.
By contrast, annual rent increases are capped at 2.2 per cent a year in Ontario and 2.6 per cent in British Columbia. As it stands, an unscrupulous landlord aware of the benefit could adjust rent to the subsidy, effectively taking the money for themselves. Without stronger — and enforced — controls, the benefit could actually inflate rents, an issue the YHC says it is aware of and has worked to safeguard against as best it can.
The Canada-Yukon Housing Benefit may prove to be a much-needed relief for working-class Yukoners, but if we want to make real — and lasting — inroads against the housing crisis, we need to make some tough policy decisions; we need more and better quality affordable housing, with government control on how much that housing costs and stronger protections for renters — full stop.
Everything else we do before we address these issues is just a Band-Aid solution — one where the bandage is made of public money, not the public interest.