Yukon officials aim for ‘transformational change’ in social housing system

Downtown Whitehorse in 2021. A report from the auditor general last year found that the Yukon government had made little progress over the previous decade in tackling issues around housing for vulnerable people. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Yukon housing officials were before a legislative committee on Tuesday vowing to fix problems that have vexed the social housing system for years.

“We need to continue to improve our systems to better understand our housing wait list, the needs of our clients, community needs and the general housing environment,” said Justin Ferbey, who was appointed president of the Yukon Housing Corporation last month.

“It is through this improved understanding and renewed partnerships that transformational change will result.”

Tuesday’s hearing before the standing committee on public accounts was focused on a scathing report from Canada’s auditor general released last spring. That report looked at housing programs in the territory, and found the Yukon Housing Corporation and the Department of Health and Social Services hadn’t done enough to provide adequate and affordable housing to those in greatest need.

The report did not look at the private rental market or homeownership.

Glenn Wheeler, from the office of the auditor general, spoke of the report at Tuesday’s committee hearing and described how little progress had been made over the previous decade to fix “longstanding issues” affecting housing programs and services.

Glenn Wheeler of the auditor general’s office, seen here in 2021. Wheeler spoke at a legislative committee on Tuesday about the ‘longstanding issues’ plaguing Yukon’s social housing system. (CBC)

Those issues include a ballooning wait list for social housing as demand consistently exceeded supply. The waiting list grew by 320 per cent between 2015 and 2021.

The auditors also found that it took almost twice as long to provide homes for individuals from priority groups, such as victims of violence, than for people from non-priority groups.

“Transforming programs and services to deliver housing to vulnerable Yukoners requires the [Yukon Housing] corporation and the [Social Services] department to work together, and with their partners. This did not happen and those with the greatest housing need suffered consequences,” Wheeler said.

The auditor general’s report included nine recommendations for improving the system and the Yukon government accepted all those recommendations. In December, the territory presented a detailed work plan “to guide improvements in meeting the core housing needs of Yukon’s most vulnerable.”

The plan commits the Housing Corporation and Department of Social Services to a multi-year memorandum of understanding to work together “formalize cooperation and coordination to improve access and resolve problems.”

Ed van Randen, deputy minister of social services, said on Tuesday the auditor general’s report identified “some hard truths.”

“Since I started this job a year ago, I’ve said many times the department can do better and I know our team is committed to continuing to work hard to get better and to tackle the housing issues we face,” van Randen said.

“I know the audit pointed out that … we’ve had plans and strategies regarding housing that we didn’t always follow through on. I mean, it’s a new day for me and for Justin [Ferbey]. And I think we’re committed to transparency and wanting to see those plans be something that we’re going to continue to follow in the years ahead.”

A changing wait list

The legislative committee heard on Tuesday that there were 276 households on the waiting list for social housing as of January 19 — and it also heard that’s an incomplete picture.

Over the past couple of years, the Yukon Housing Corporation waived the requirement for applicants to submit annually a notice of assessment from the Canada Revenue Agency, in order to be on the waiting list. That requirement has now been reinstated, but more than 200 people have not yet submitted their NOAs.

The Yukon Housing Corporation office in Whitehorse in 2017. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

That’s led to a “significant reduction in the wait list,” Ferbey said on Tuesday — 46 per cent since August — because those names have been removed.

“To date, only two of the 208 removed have submitted the required documentation … we’ve reached out for them to resubmit their NOA. So they ultimately would have to reapply.”

NDP MLA Emily Tredger, who sat on the committee on Tuesday, questioned whether it was difficult to contact or track down people who are facing homelessness.

“Also, the burden of submitting an application is not insignificant when you’re facing many, many other challenges with your living situation,” Tredger said.

NDP MLA Emily Tredger, seen here in the legislative assembly last year, questioned the need for social housing applicants to reapply in order to stay on the waiting list. (Yukon Government)

Housing corporation director Kristine Carruthers acknowledged those potential barriers, but said submitting an NOA is simply “part of the process.”

“It’s very clearly documented that that is a requirement. We do work with our partners as well to ensure that they are aware that we are doing this,” Carruthers said.

Housing officials also said they have no numbers to illustrate the current demand for supportive housing, transitional housing, or emergency shelter beds. Nor do they have a reliable method for predicting how social housing need may grow in the coming years.

“We do submit that our modelling forecasts do need to improve. That’s one of our priority items this coming year,” Ferbey said.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Affordability one major theme of Yukon’s latest housing report, CBC News

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