Housing
Yellowknife

This is Yellowknife's latest attempt at affordable housing


Twelve "micro condos" set to be built in downtown Yellowknife next year are now available for purchase. For $194,000, you get 280 square feet of living space.

The Gem condominiums, as they are known, will be built on 54 Street near Aurora College's Yellowknife campus. Half are currently being sold individually, while the remaining six are bundled together – for around $1.2 million – as "ideal short-term rental properties" for one investor to purchase.

Construction is anticipated to start in the spring and finish before the end of 2020.

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The 12 condos' occupants will share two electric vehicles, occupying the only two parking spaces associated with the development. The vehicles will be charged in part through solar panels mounted to the building's roof.

Wayne Guy, the developer, said his design would "give affordable housing to downtown Yellowknife for millennials, twenty-somethings, and snowbirds."

The more space you occupy, the more you have to pay to heat it.

ADRIAN BELL, REALTOR

"We want to keep the units well under $200,000," he said. "I don't think you can get anything else in town for that."

Adrian Bell, a realtor tasked with selling the condos, said their size – and cost – makes them an entirely new prospect in the Yellowknife housing market.

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"This is the first micro-suite condo development in Yellowknife and I don't think many towns of our size have seen something like this. This is something you're more likely to see in Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal," said Bell.

"We've got some unique challenges in the North and the more space you occupy, the more you have to pay to heat it. On a variety of fronts, this project really presents an opportunity to see if we can create a low-cost, eco-friendly model."

A floor plan of a typical Gem condominium

A floor plan of a typical Gem condominium.

Bell acknowledged the size of the units is "definitely a challenge." In 2017, the developer of a similar project in Toronto said 280 square feet was the smallest any condo design could reasonably be. (In the same city this year, a similarly sized condo could be rented for $1,900 per month.)

Guy said the development would help to rebuild Yellowknife's downtown by providing an affordable means of living in the area, and would help people stay in the North.

"This is my 42nd year in Yellowknife. If I hadn't found a cheap shack that first year, I don't know if I would have stayed," Guy told Cabin Radio.

"If you come to a new community and have to work 60-hour weeks just to keep a roof over your head and keep yourself fed, there is no joy in that.

"People who are house-poor burn themselves out in a year or two and then leave, which I think is a great indicator as to why our population hasn't grown in the past decade and a half."

Homes or Airbnbs?

While Guy stressed his development's affordable housing credentials, realtor Century 21 is marketing six of the units – the entire first floor of the two-storey building – as an "excellent investment opportunity" for people who want to run short-term rentals like Airbnb.

Bell defended that approach, saying this was a "unique way of marketing" a new type of development where realtors may not know who's most likely to bite: first-time homeowners or entrepreneurs.

"That's allowing the opportunity to appeal both to folks interested in the low-cost option and those interested in the investment opportunity," he said, "to see which of the two is more appealing.

"If the demand is more for people who want the low-cost homes, we would pretty quickly change the marketing.

"We know they could be appealing to both these groups, we just don't know which group is bigger."

A rendering of a Gem condominium's interior
A rendering of a Gem condominium's interior

Renderings of a Gem condominium's interior.

Guy said short-term rentals couldn't be discounted as they help to drive the city's tourism industry.

"What's very important is that [visitors] have places to stay. I think it's important that that market be served, and served well," he said.

"I know there has been huge discussion about the merits and downsides of short-term rentals. I think the best thing is for it to be really left to market pressures to fill, and not be overly regulated, because then that will deter people from getting into what is a very important niche."

'Green energy model'

Guy believes the building's car-share program, featuring two electric vehicles controlled by the condo board, could help transform Yellowknife's downtown if replicated elsewhere.

"This is the first step to really revitalize downtown," he said. "The car-share program enables you to develop a lot without tearing down the building next to it to accommodate a parking lot.

"Yellowknife has suffered a disintegration of what's called urban fabric – we have lots of vacant, open land downtown because everybody was amassing land and doing demos, waiting to build another highrise. Highrises haven't been all that successful and I would argue they have been the nail in the coffin for downtown – they keep the streets quite dead and inactive.

"If you don't have great amenities in the heart of a town, you do tend to gravitate toward a bedroom community. If people are going to stay in the town and the town is going to grow, they need affordable housing."

Bell said the name – Gem condominiums – is an acronym, standing for "green energy model." He hopes prospective buyers will see the condos as a "very green option" and the car-share program as an affordability perk, not a hindrance.

"The car-share idea is not brand-new in town but this is the first development designed with a car-share in mind," he said.

"There are some figures out there that indicate vehicle ownership is somewhere from $5,000 to $9,000 per year. That's a huge expense. The North – the cold – it's hard on vehicles.

"Here's an opportunity to demonstrate you can truly live more-or-less car-free in this town."

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