February 16, 2022

Residents in northern and remote regions face unique housing barriers and costs

view of Yellowknife NWT

By Evergreen

The Housing Supply Challenge – with $80 million in funding available – seeks solutions to these complex challenges

Canada’s North occupies a vast space on the map. But the unique conditions of northern and remote regions often remain a blind spot for most residents in the South. 

The Housing Supply Challenge, delivered by the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC), aims to generate appropriate and affordable housing solutions for northern and remote communities. With up to $80M in funding available, the Northern Access Round: Supply Chain Solutions for Northern and Remote Housing encourages residents, community members and experts to propose solutions that reduce dependencies on complex supply chains, help overcome transportation challenges, increase the accessibility of remote communities, innovate with new approaches to housing materials, address capacity and training needs, and adopt culturally appropriate techniques while improving climate adaptation efforts.  

This third round of the Housing Supply Challenge launches in February 2022. 

Evergreen, in partnership with the CMHC, is providing guidance and support to applicants to develop and improve their submissions. We connected with Mary Cameron, President of the Yukon Housing Corporation, to learn more about the unique challenges of ensuring adequate, safe and affordable housing supply in northern and remote regions. Cameron is one of the Housing Supply Challenge Support Program Advisory Committee Members 

Promising new approaches 

Responsibility for housing, as Cameron explains, falls at the intersection of four levels of government: the federal government, First Nations governments (of which there are 14 in Yukon), the territorial governments, and municipalities. Additionally, it takes the involvement of the private and non-profit sectors for many projects to be realized. Cameron is seeing many exciting projects from all levels of government and other actors in the Yukon housing ecosystem. 

For example, Kwanlin Dün First Nation, located within Whitehorse, passed the Lands Act in March 2020, giving the First Nation the authority to “manage, protect and enforce laws on settlement land.” This enabled the subsequent land lottery, under which Kwanlin Dün citizens and beneficiaries can lease residential lots for 125 years at below market prices, enabling them to build and occupy their own homes. The Yukon government has supported the First Nations governments, including Kwanlin Dün First Nation, over the past few years to register their Settlement Land in the Yukon Land Titles Office in a way that does not impact Aboriginal rights and titles. Development costs on a typical Whitehorse lot would be $150,000 but for Kwanlin Dün land lottery winners, the costs are typically under $60,000. 

Cameron hopes for the continued development of a robust non-profit ecosystem that works in partnership with the private sector on other innovative projects that respond to the needs of an ever-diversifying population.  

“It’s been a remarkable time to be involved in housing in the Yukon,” says Cameron, reflecting on the progress she has seen over the last decade. 

Partnerships and collaboration are key 

Distance is the major obstacle to overcome in addressing the challenges of northern housing. In 2021, the Yukon Bureau of Statistics reported the population of Yukon to be approximately 43,000. The capital, Whitehorse, has just over 33,000 residents. With more modest populations than in the South, capacity is the number one obstacle – capacity in terms of skilled labour, material resources, and organizations on the ground.  

Cameron mentions a specific northern problem that the Yukon Housing Corporation has stepped in to help solve: access to home financing. In southern Canada, someone with good credit and the available down payment will rarely struggle to find a bank to finance a mortgage. But lending becomes more complicated in rural parts of the Yukon, where data about property value is scarce. Traditional lenders cannot properly gauge risk and have traditionally left these rural communities without robust home financing services. As a result, the Yukon Housing Corporation provides mortgages directly to eligible rural community members. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated pre-existing problems. Construction crews flying in from southern areas were obligated to quarantine for two weeks before starting work. Construction companies had to find a way to encourage vaccine mandate compliance among their employees. In the fall of 2021, without proof of vaccination, construction workers weren’t able to board a plane.  

Typically, a big city has housing solutions at every step along the housing continuum – from emergency shelters to home ownership to seniors’ residences. In the Yukon, there have been noticeable gaps in this continuum for many years. But over the last decade, Cameron notes that thanks to the combined efforts of those in the private, public and non-profit sector, all of those gaps are well on the way of being filled with at least one housing solution. 

Housing challenges cannot be siloed away from other problems, including health emergencies, economic conditions, and poverty. For this reason, the Yukon Housing Corporation, like many other actors in the ecosystem, has constructive working relationships and partnerships with the territory’s Department of Health and Social Services and local NGO sector services. Yukon Housing, along with the Department of Health and Social Services supported the Housing First residence, which provides supported housing environments for adults who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The Housing First Residence was a major change in the approach to housing for the Yukon, and the North that successfully addressed a long-standing gap in housing availability.  

Sometimes, the solution to a housing challenge is a subsidy to make a private rental apartment affordable to a family on a modest income. In other cases, especially when a specific solution doesn’t yet exist, diverse actors in the housing ecosystem must team up to create a new approach. For example, the corporation’s Housing Initiatives Fund, an incentive program which supports the development of affordable housing options for Yukoners – from housing with services, to rental housing and home ownership. 

Cameron is excited about the prospect of the Housing Supply Challenge. It’s not simply a matter of showcasing innovative housing supply solutions to address complex problems. Funding recipients “can create an actual business venture,” she says. “This is not just a competition. It’s an industry-wide opportunity. This opens up the way to get funds to actually implement your ideas.” 

There is $80 million in funding available for the Northern Access: Supply Chain Solutions for Northern and Remote Housing Round. 

“I strongly invite people with creative ideas to gather their team and do it!” says Cameron. 

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