It’s been called a crisis for over a decade, but the Yukon’s housing situation has never been this bad. How can the territory get runaway housing costs under control?
Housing prices are at or near all-time highs in the Yukon, rental units have never been harder to find and a record number of people are homeless.
The housing crisis is nothing new to the territory — it’s been described as a crisis for more than a decade — but it’s never been this bad, says Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill.
“I’m hearing a lot of stories about people couch surfing and … living in very not-so-safe situations,” she says.
She adds that many people, especially since the pandemic, have been moving to the Yukon.
“And it’s created a situation in the city where … we’re at capacity,” she says. “We don’t have any more houses left.”
Denny Kobayashi has lived in the territory for more than 40 years.
“I’ve never seen anything close to this,” says the executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce. “Nor did I expect that the pricing here would just take off. I don’t know when that is going to soften up.”
The average price of a single detached home in Whitehorse peaked in 2021 at $656,800. According to data published in August by the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, the average price of a home in the Yukon capital has gone down slightly since then, to $643,100, but still represents about a 75 per cent increase over the last decade.
The territory’s statistics bureau says that Whitehorse’s median or midpoint for rent for units in buildings with three or more rental units was $1,150 in April of 2022. The vacancy rate was 0.8 per cent.
In 2012, the comparable median rent was $836.
A search on Kijiji in early August for a two-bedroom place in Whitehorse turned up 19 available units with an average rental price of $2,130 per month, usually plus utilities.
For Yukoners in the greatest need, the situation is dire. Last May, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada issued a report on Yukon housing that found in the past decade, the territorial government had not provided adequate and affordable housing for Yukoners who need it the most.
The report found that between 2015 and 2021, the waiting list for social housing grew from 112 to 463 — more than a 300 per cent increase. Over the same time, the territory’s population grew by 14 per cent.
Safe At Home, a non-profit group established in 2020 with a mandate to prevent and end homelessness in the Yukon, tracks homelessness with the help of other housing advocates and organizations that work with vulnerable people. In early August, its list showed 206 adults who were homeless in Whitehorse, plus 60 children. Also included were 49 families.
The group recently issued 10 calls to action in response to the ongoing homelessness crisis in the city. The recommendations include expanding rent supplements to include those receiving income support, banning no-cause evictions, creating a landlord registry and revisiting the need for regulating short-term rentals in the city.
“Fundamentally, [the housing crisis] is a supply and demand question,” says Yukon economist Keith Halliday. “It’s a long-standing issue that’s been well known to policymakers and market participants here for a long time.”
He says federal transfer payments have steadily risen every year for the past decade, reaching more than $1.2 billion in 2022-23. That, he says, means the size of the territorial government keeps growing, adding pressure on the housing market.
“This is a large amount of money in a small economy,” says Halliday.
The Canadian census indicates the Yukon’s population increased by 12.1 per cent between 2016 and 2021, by far the highest growth rate of any province or territory.
The Yukon government expects the territory’s population to reach 47,200 by 2026.
“[That’s] great, but it does create demand for housing,” Halliday says.
He adds the Yukon government, which controls most of the land for development, hasn’t kept up with demand.
Kobayashi says he’s heard from chamber members about how the housing crisis has hindered their ability to attract and retain workers in Whitehorse.
“I was talking to a small business just this last week and he said he’s had to rent a place and, you know, with multiple bedrooms in it,” Kobayashi says. “And he’s had to include … a significant housing subsidy to be able to retain his employees.”
Kobayashi says he offered a management position with the chamber to someone from Edmonton who, after looking at the price of housing in Whitehorse, told Kobayashi he couldn’t afford it and declined the position.
Judy Greenhill and her husband Rick Avery decided to retire in the Yukon, after living in Guelph, Ont., for decades, to be closer to their kids. Their daughter has been living in Whitehorse for the past decade and their son lives with his wife in Alaska.
Together with their daughter, in the summer of 2021, the retired couple looked at listings online. If they were interested in a property, their daughter would go look at it in person. After two or three weeks, they bought a country residential property near Mt. Sima.
Greenhill says they weren’t surprised by the prices for homes in Whitehorse.
“We had discussed it for quite a while before we actually decided to move on it,” she said. “[The prices] weren’t too surprising, especially given how house prices were just exploding in Ontario.”
Marc Perreault, president of the Yukon Real Estate Association, thinks the term “housing crisis” is used a little too loosely.
“We definitely have some challenges within some of the housing sectors, but we have a relatively strong, stable market,” he says, “which is consistent with having a government-based economy.”
But Perreault’s is a dissenting opinion. It’s an “urgent situation,” says Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott. She says the crisis affects all segments of the housing market, including affordable housing units, homes for sale and rental housing.
“We need to be able to provide housing opportunities for everybody. I call it an infusion into the market,” Cabott says. “We need something now.”
“And I mean a significant number of homes in addition to all the stuff that’s happening in Whistle Bend.”
Whistle Bend is the city’s newest neighbourhood. Construction began in the early 2010s and the neighbourhood is expected to be home to approximately 8,000 residents by the time it’s fully developed.
“There is no silver bullet,” adds Kate Mechan, Safe At Home’s executive director. “There is no one housing project or one lot development or one incentive that is going to solve it all. We’re in this for the long haul.”
Most agree it will take many different initiatives to solve the crisis but not everyone shares the belief that solutions lie only in the distant future.
In late August, the Yukon Government unveiled a draft housing plan that focuses on affordable and transitional housing for vulnerable Yukoners.
Ranj Pillai, Yukon’s housing minister, says the plan will focus on co-ordination and data sharing between the Yukon Housing Corporation, the Department of Health and Social Services, municipalities and First Nations.
Mechan says while the government’s latest response includes some tangible actions, including reviewing the waitlist and co-ordinating access to housing, she expected more detail and more urgency.
Looking ahead, Pillai says there are a number of plots of land inside Whitehorse right now that could be used to dramatically change the housing situation.
He points to, among other places, the city’s former tank farm, west of the city’s airport and downtown.
“There’s an opportunity for hundreds and hundreds of lots [there],” he said. “We’re working with the city on trying to move that forward … and then strategically looking at lots throughout the community as well where we can densify.”
Cabott says the city recently established a housing and land development authority, composed of experts who will give it advice on how it can improve its processes for development and remove unnecessary barriers.
She also wants the city to find a way to encourage development in empty commercial and residential lots.
There’s also a bylaw in the city that forbids people from living where they work, Cabott says. She says businesses have come to the city asking to add residential units to their places of business so they’re better able to attract staff.
“And I say, why the heck not?”
Many of the measures Cabott would like to see put in place are included in the city’s proposed official community plan, released in late July. It lays out the city’s vision for growth for the next two decades.
It estimates, based on population forecasts from the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, that the city will need 6,150 units by 2040 to meet demand.
City officials say the plan, which is expected to be approved by city council in December, is meant to create housing and encourage efficient use of services.
Chief Doris Bill says the First Nation she leads is working with the city and the territorial governments to get more units on the market as fast as it can.
Kwanlin Dün is Whitehorse’s biggest private landowner.
It’s starting a development this year in Copper Ridge, a Whitehorse neighbourhood, hoping to have 25 houses for sale by next fall and then expand that to 50 or 75 houses. The First Nation also announced a development on Range Road that will ultimately produce 400 residential units.
“We’re working to provide different types of housing options for citizens and beneficiaries, including homeownership opportunities,” Bill says. She adds the First Nation will give priority to its citizens when those homes go on the market.
Bill says one of the biggest obstacles to housing is the cost of developing land.
“Infrastructure costs can go quite high,” she says, but she’s been lobbying the federal government, sometimes with the help of the Yukon government, for funding to help with those costs.
If the supply begins to meet the demand, prices to buy homes and rent apartments should stabilize or even decline.
Halliday, the economist, says in the past couple of years, there has been significant construction of new homes in Whitehorse, but he says it still isn’t enough..
Every year, he says, “people talk about ‘supply is coming.’ And yet somehow the future arrives and prices keep going up. So have we finally broken that pattern?”
He doesn’t think so.
“I remain a bit skeptical that the longstanding structural shortages in the Yukon housing market have been broken,” he says.
It begs the question whether high prices to buy a home or to rent an apartment have become the new normal in Whitehorse, Halliday says.
“My kids, for example, who grew up here, will they want to live here? Can they afford to live here? What kind of jobs will you need to have to be able to afford to live in Whitehorse?”
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Lead image: Townhomes in Whitehorse’s Whistle Bend neighbourhood. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)