Yellowknife needs work camps to give hundreds of workers somewhere to live during the city’s ongoing housing crisis, one councillor says.
Rob Warburton, who also runs real estate investment company CloudWorks, urged fellow council members to “do something to provide immediate options to decrease the pressure.”
Councillors broadly support introducing temporary work camps, but the city’s community plan currently doesn’t allow them.
At a meeting next Monday, council is expected to instruct city staff to begin working on amendments that would allow work camps in partly industrial areas like Kam Lake. Exact locations and regulations have yet to be determined.
Yellowknife expects an influx of people working on projects like the remediation of Giant Mine, which requires hundreds of staff for the rest of the decade and beyond.
The city is also in the catch-22 of requiring workers to build more housing but having nowhere to house them.
“Where do we house all the workers that come to our city to work at our local businesses, staff our service and tourism industries, and work on construction projects to literally build our community?” Warburton asked.
“These workers and businesses are now in direct competition with our other residents for already scarce rental units. Unless we do something to address this, our housing crisis will only get dramatically worse.
“We do not have the time to wait, as we have hundreds of workers coming to our city this summer.”
Current plan prohibits camps
While new housing complexes offering hundreds of rental units are being developed, Warburton said they won’t be ready in time to “deal with the housing squeeze hitting right now.”
His outlook was supported by all councillors who spoke at a Monday meeting at City Hall.
Tom McLennan, for example, said: “I’ve talked to residents in this industry and they see no solution other than this.”
Some councillors did, though, express reservations about some of the consequences of introducing temporary work camps.
“Work camps are statistically shown to increase gender-based violence and sexual violence,” said Cat McGurk. “The reality is, though, that we are going to see that with increased workers in the city, no matter what.”
Ben Hendriksen, who said he believed council will hear views “for and against this one,” cited concerns such as the impact on traffic.
“I will want to see some tangible solutions to ensure that the increase in traffic doesn’t lead to an increase in negative interactions between cars, bikes, pedestrians all going out to Kam Lake Road, where we already have some infrastructure needs,” he said.
The main problem to overcome is Yellowknife’s community plan, which is only a few years old but appears to have almost inadvertently ruled out work camps in their entirety.
Work camps are defined in the plan but then don’t appear as a permitted use in any region of the city, planning director Charlsey White told councillors.
“The way that land use planning works is that if something is not specifically permitted, then it is prohibited,” said White.
“This was obviously contemplated and purposely not included,” she said, adding that the plan was finalized before she began working at the city.
“There must have been a reason for that, and it’s something that needs to be addressed before a zoning bylaw amendment could be even considered.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty – who was the mayor when the plan was passed – seemed less sure that there was, in fact, a reason for that.
“I don’t think we actually contemplated that it should be excluded, or the fact that, just by including a definition, it was going to prohibit work camps in the zoning bylaw,” Alty said.
Niven land sells quickly
White has already been looking at how municipalities in the south regulate work camps.
In general, she said, the term of such camps is three years – that’s what makes them temporary – with extensions that can be applied for as needed.
Warburton said that temporary nature was well understood in the industries that need the camps, as were concerns around safety and their impact on the community around them. He said the standards and measures associated with camps had improved significantly in recent years.
“This is not skirting something to do a cheaper version. These camps can cost millions to build, ship and run,” Warburton said.
“By permitting and inspecting these work camps under a city bylaw, we can stay on top of these issues and put in place requirements that limit, or ideally eliminate, the potential negative impacts on our community.”
Alty, following a suggestion from Councillor Ryan Fequet, said staff would also take into consideration the findings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls regarding “man camps.”
Meanwhile, longer-term efforts to increase housing capacity continue.
White said various parcels of land placed for sale by the city in the Niven Lake area had all sold within two weeks of being advertised.