Safe at Home Society requests $1.7M from City of Whitehorse for housing project
Advocacy group says project has cost much more than expected
The Safe at Home Society is asking the City of Whitehorse for financial help with its supportive housing project at the former High Country Inn.
In a presentation to city council at Monday night's standing committee meeting, Safe at Home's executive director Kate Mechan said the project had incurred unexpected costs and delays, leaving the organization in a tough position.
"It's no secret to anyone that Safe at Home's rapid housing initiative project has faced some challenges, challenges I believe we're facing with integrity and grit," Mechan said in her presentation.
"These challenges impact both our timelines and our overall project budget, and thus our ability to act with urgency. And in the end, it's people experiencing homelessness who are suffering."
Safe at Home is asking the city for $1.7 million for the project. That's in the form of incentives and grants that would waive development costs as well as cover some municipal taxes and permitting and utility charges.
"[The request] is of huge magnitude and I completely acknowledge and honour that," Mechan said.
"We believe that our request is warranted and will ultimately support the vulnerable community."
The project is designed to provide 55 supportive housing units at the former Whitehorse hotel. Safe at Home has also said it might be able to provide space for an additional 12 people.
To date, the advocacy organization has received roughly $16 million in funding for the project — $15 million from the federal government (including $5 million from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation's Rapid Housing Initiative) and $1 million from the Yukon Housing Corporation.
Safe at Home says since it purchased the building, operating and maintaining it has cost far more than expected. Delays have also upped the cost, Mechan said, as the building has been sitting empty and without revenue for longer than anticipated.
City can offer some help, say staff
At Monday's meeting, city staff told council it could waive $120,000 in development charges and give the society a grant that covers any increase in property taxes at the site. That's through the city's Rental and Supportive Housing Development Incentive.
But, as city staff told council, the tax grant might not help the organization very much. That's because the society is retrofitting a commercial building to make it residential, so it may not see taxes on the property go up.
Safe at Home is also eligible for $20,000 in non-profit housing incentives, city staff said. That would help cover permitting and inspection fees.
The housing development incentive policy and the city's grant-making policy limit Safe at Home's eligibility for additional funding, city staff said.
Request to look for more money
Council has asked administration to look at other ways the city might be able to offer financial support for the project.
Coun. Kirk Cameron said the project is a special case, and the city should do what it can to find a solution.
"I wonder if in this instance, because of its very unique character, and what it's trying to do for our city," Cameron said, "maybe we need to consider this as a one-off extraordinary situation where we look at something different."
Coun. Dan Boyd suggested the city had already provided the project with $5 million from the Rapid Housing Initiative. That's federal money for the project that the city applied for.
"That money went into this project," Boyd said. "So a person could argue that the city's already got $5 million invested in this project, plus whatever we'll end up doing with this request."
Administration will bring more research to council before the city makes a decision.
Meanwhile, Safe at Home is planning to move 20 people into the units this month until the end of June. Renovations will continue after that period.
In an interview, Mechan said additional costs for the project have come in part from renovations to bring the building up to code.
"We are not asking for anything fancier, anything different," Mechan said. "It is [building] code-related work. Nobody can occupy this building in the future if this code-related work is not done."
Aside from the $1.7 million requested from the city, Mechan said Safe at Home doesn't know for sure how much more money the project will need. She confirmed the organization is looking for additional funding from existing providers and new partners.
Mechan also noted the project had presented a steep learning curve for her organization, and said Safe at Home hasn't always had enough support navigating some processes.
"The learning curve for non-profit housing providers is not unique to Safe at Home, it's happening all across the country," she said.
"Funding streams and building processes are going to have to adapt and follow suit and provide different mechanisms of support."