Yellowknife’s housing affordability crisis has noticeably worsened over the past decade, with almost a third of households now affected, new figures show.
In 2009, 14 percent of Yellowknife’s homes had affordability issues – meaning households where more than 30 percent of pre-tax income is spent on housing costs.
A housing report released by the NWT Bureau of Statistics last week states that figure has more than doubled. This year, 29.3 percent of the city’s homes are considered unaffordable for the occupants.
The percentage of homes with affordability issues is increasing in all of the territory’s regional centres except Behchokǫ̀, which saw a small drop from 17 percent in 2009 to 15 percent in 2019.
In smaller communities, adequacy and suitability – whether your home needs major repairs or lacks running water, and whether it has enough bedrooms for everyone – are the major problems.
In 2019’s affordability rankings, Enterprise, Hay River, and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation were also communities with significant difficulties, about 10 percentage points behind Yellowknife.
Across the NWT, affordability issues now affect 21.6 percent of homes, up from 14 percent 10 years ago. That increase comes despite affordability improving in many smaller communities like Jean Marie River, which had 40 percent of homes report affordability issues in 2009 but just 15 percent in the same situation this year.
Competing for stagnant supply
Adrian Bell, president of the Yellowknife Real Estate Board, called the report “very troubling.”
“The report raises red flags but it doesn’t provide us with the details required to come up with solutions,” he wrote to Cabin Radio. “It merely points us in a general direction. We need to dig deeper to understand the causes of the problem.”
Bell said he hopes anyone who cares about housing – from different levels of government to non-profits, concerned citizens, and the media – will make an effort to understand the numbers.
The realtor suggested there may be little that can correct Yellowknife’s growing affordability issues, but that won’t be clear until further research is completed.
“Without a doubt, Yellowknife in 2019 is different from Yellowknife in 2009,” he reflected.
“In the decade preceding 2009, household incomes were rising by about 3.6 percent per year,” he said, looking at data for 2003 to 2009. In the seven-year period since, incomes only rose an average of 1.94 percent per year.
“In fact, household incomes don’t appear to have kept pace with inflation since 2009,” Bell continued.
Despite this, he said, construction costs have increased considerably since 2011, which has led to no new rental accommodation being built.
Bell said approximately 40-percent of residents are renters “competing for a supply that is not growing.”
Meanwhile the population has grown, albeit slowly: in 2009, Yellowknife had 19,725 residents. Last year, that figure was up to 20,607.
“Renters are being squeezed, and it’s hard to see how this will change with the ramping up of the Giant Mine remediation project and the big influx of short-term residents it will bring,” Bell said.
New building standards
Yellowknife recently revised its building bylaw. How the new version, adopted on September 9, will affect prices in the city is unclear.
The bylaw contains new standards for residential buildings that are about 25-percent higher than the industry-standard 2015 National Building Code.
The majority of Yellowknife’s new homes are manufactured in the south and follow the National Building Code. How much more houses built just to meet Yellowknife’s requirements will cost – and if manufacturers will even take on that task – remains to be seen.
Whose job it is to police affordability is another question.
Tom Williams, president and chief executive of the NWT Housing Corporation, said Yellowknife is a territorial anomaly – and suggested the corporation’s powers in the city are comparatively minimal.
“We do have a huge private market here,” he said, “and market forces determine what the market rates are, so we really have no control over that.”
The housing corporation’s first goal is to “ensure a sufficient supply of adequate, suitable, and affordable housing to address the housing needs of NWT residents.”
“Even as a housing corporation, the majority of our public housing units in Yellowknife we lease from private owners,” Williams explained.
By contrast, Williams said, the corporation itself owns approximately 95 percent of housing it administers in smaller communities – allowing the corporation more ability to influence affordability.