How Yukon’s booming economy and rapid population growth has led to a housing crisis
Yukon led the country in terms of population growth from 2016 to 2021, but the rapid increase has amplified its housing shortage. Many locals say they’re being pushed out of the housing market as rising prices rival those in some of Canada’s hottest real estate markets.
It’s a common saying among locals that Yukon is “Canada’s best-kept secret” — referring to the territory’s pristine wilderness and welcoming culture. But it seems the secret is out.
According to Canada’s 2021 census numbers, Yukon led the country in terms of population growth since 2016, increasing by 12.1 per cent and bringing its population from 35,874 to 40,232.
The fast population growth is amplifying an already longstanding housing shortage.
Housing crisis ‘impacting everybody’
Manitoba native Marcus Schneider is currently looking to move to Yukon, where he has an opportunity to be trained as an automotive technician and mechanic and make a higher wage than in his hometown of East Selkirk in the process.
But Schneider, who’s looking for a two-bedroom apartment, is struggling to secure a place.
“I’m finding a lot of places, especially within Whitehorse, that are on the low end $2,400 a month without utilities and they go all the way up to $3,500 for some of the places with a garage,” he said.
That’s equivalent to around three quarters of his monthly wage — “and that’s not even including utilities,” he added.
In recent years, house and rent prices have exploded, bringing the median two-bedroom apartment rent to around $1,300 according to data from 2021, but many locals who spoke with CBC said the average price is actually around $2,000 right now.
Several recent online rental listings are asking in the ballpark of $2,000 for a two-bedroom apartment.
The Yukon Housing Corporation also conceded in an email statement that “the actual market rent is often higher” than the median market rent.
The average sale price of a single detached house in Whitehorse as of November 2021 was $656,800, a record high and an increase of $87,800, or 15.4 per cent over one year.
“I can say that probably within the past year … we’ve been getting more calls from people who have sort of well-paying [jobs], not just minimum wage jobs… who are also struggling to get into the housing market,” said Kate Mechan, executive director of Yukon’s Safe At Home Society, an organization that aims to end and prevent homelessness in the Yukon.
“It’s impacting everybody across the board,” added Mechan, including businesses.
Housing is indeed top of mind for many Yukoners. In all three 2021 local elections at the federal, territorial and municipal levels, it was a central issue.
A 2021 report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) found housing affordability to be a serious challenge in Yukon, particularly in Whitehorse, where “market options are out of reach for some households without financial assistance.”
In fact, the report found nearly 20 per cent of all households in Whitehorse could not secure market housing without some form of assistance in 2019.
Young people, seniors and single parents had a particularly difficult time finding adequate, suitable and affordable housing.
As of December 2021, there were 443 people on the housing wait-list in Whitehorse, according to the Yukon Housing Corporation, a stark increase from 2016 when there were 114 clients on the list.
Homelessness is also a growing issue.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic … some Yukoners have been facing housing challenges because of lost or reduced income,” the Yukon Housing Corporation said in an email statement.
Booming economy, natural beauty attracting people
Recent migrants, municipal and territorial government officials and local real estate agents all agree: abundant job opportunities, natural beauty and a great sense of community are bringing people to the Yukon.
“We see a lot of people that leave from other provinces … come here in the search of de-urbanization,” Whitehorse-based real estate agent Marc Perreault told Radio-Canada in French.
“The other reasons are … there are good job opportunities.”
Yukon has the lowest unemployment rate in Canada at 3.3 per cent, and is one of only jurisdictions in Canada where the GDP grew from 2019 to 2020.
Yukon minister of economic development Ranj Pillai told Radio-Canada that the territory’s economy has been growing over the past five years — so much so, it’s been difficult to find enough people to fill all the job opportunities.
“It’s hard to keep up with the demand,” said Laura Cabott, mayor of Whitehorse. “We need nurses, we need teachers, we need doctors, we need people working in the mining industry.”
Jeremy Hetherington, who moved to Whitehorse from Grimsby, Ont., in March 2020 for an airline job, said he made the move “because I get to see the northern lights and I can drive and not have to worry about six lanes of traffic.”
He was laid off from his Whitehorse job two days after starting due to the pandemic, but found a new job as a restaurant manager so he could stay permanently after he “he fell in love” with the way of life.
“The first time I saw the northern lights, I cried,” said Hetherington.
He calls himself “an outdoors guy” and loves how accessible hunting, fishing and camping is.
Riley Coppicus moved to Whitehorse from Manitoba in 2018 for similar reasons, but he’s struggling to make ends meet now that he’s starting a family.
“You really need extra income when you’re living up north here because it’s so expensive,” said Coppicus, who is trying to save enough money for a down payment on a home.
“The housing is pretty much at Vancouver prices, if not maybe higher when you account for … the cost of heat.”
This has led many newcomers and locals to find creative ways to stay housed, including embracing life in vans or yurts.
Realtor Marc Perreault says part of the issue is the growing wage gap between government employees and people working in the private sector.
“Growth in the public sector is a big problem, making the base pay much higher, increasing housing prices,” he said.
Real estate development can’t keep up with demand
Yukon has been developing more housing than ever before, but it’s still not meeting the demand.
The 2021 CMHC report found that new housing construction in Whitehorse had more than doubled in 2020 to 478 units from the 230 units started in 2019, well above the five and 10-year averages for new housing starts in the city.
The city issued a record number of resident unit permits in 2021 — 590 of them. Between 2016 and 2021, 2,431 permits were issued.
But Perreault says development is not happening fast enough.
“It’s an environment that’s difficult to develop because of the mountains, rocks, water and other environmental factors,” he said. “So, there are limits as to what can be developed fairly quickly.”
Conversely, a lack of affordable housing is limiting economic growth, especially in communities outside of Whitehorse.
That’s the case in Carmacks, Yukon, where Mayor Lee Bodie says the housing shortage is seriously hampering the local economy and the municipality’s ability to attract and retain staff.
“I manage a large grocery store and we did a $1-million renovation 10 years ago, and we still cannot open up the lower level to the public because we don’t have the staff to man that section,” Bodie said. “There’s no place to put the people.”
Bodie is currently housing some of the store’s staff in his own home, which has three bedrooms.