A good job brought this Northerner home. Yellowknife's rental market could drive her back south
When Melanie Dene got a government job as a gender and equity officer in Yellowknife it felt like all her hard work had paid off.
After being away from the North for 20 years she was excited to return to the city she considers home, with a well-paid job that brought her close to her family.
"I felt like I did all the right things," she said of her decision to return to school later in life to get her master's degree at the University of Edmonton.
But then the single mom came up against the current rental market in Yellowknife.
Dene said she thought she had lined up a place in February, just before she moved back to Yellowknife. But by the time she got to the city, the place was taken by someone else.
It's been like that over and over again. She'll inquire, fill out an application and be told "they decided to go with someone else," she said. Or she'll call and won't hear back from people at all.
She said it's like riding an emotional roller coaster and it's hard not to take it personally.
"I have perfect references. I have the job … I don't drink, I don't smoke … So what is it about me? Why I didn't get the place?"
For nearly two months, she's been living at her dad's place with her four-year old and her two teenagers.
She's tried the housing co-ops, rental management companies, big landlords like Northview, and even the housing authorities.
And as she's looking around she's hearing about people who been searching for much longer to find rental housing. Some of those people have also reached out to CBC saying they've got good jobs, and good references, but have been looking for months or even years for accommodation.
Hearing those stories, Dene reached a point a where she told her boss she might have to go back to Edmonton.
"If my dad wasn't here, if I didn't have family here, I would have been basically homeless right now. Me and my kids would have been living in my car," she said.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's (CMHC) latest data shows a rental vacancy for Yellowknife of 1.8 per cent, but realtor Adrian Bell said those numbers likely don't reflect the reality of what's happening on the ground now.
Vacancy data is always six months behind, he said, and that data only captures the large landlords like Northview, because there's no requirement for smaller landlords to report vacancies to CHMC.
Bell said renters are in a super-tight market and he suspects rates are much lower.
"I'd describe it as zero vacancy," said Rob Warburton, the president of city's chamber of commerce who also runs a real estate company in Yellowknife.
He said half of the calls he gets these days are about residential housing.
"I mostly do corporate and crew housing so the fact I'm getting inquiries, I'm kind of far down the list of rental companies — that lets you know that there's not a lot available."
Construction pause, and resumption
Warburton said "a critical mass of things" are contributing to the dire shortage of market rental housing.
A lot of condos have been built, and people are renting some of those out, but there have been "no purpose-built rentals for quite a while," he said.
Things are also opening up following lengthy pandemic restrictions lifted, which means jobs are opening up and people are moving to Yellowknife.
Rental housing is also being scooped up by contractors working on several big projects in the capital, including the expansion to the Avens seniors complex, the city's new pool and the ramp-up of remediation at Giant Mine.
"All that requires quite a bit of out-of-town labour," Warburton said. "They've got to stay somewhere and they would prefer accommodations with kitchens as opposed to hotels."
Warburton said he knows of one contractor who rented 12 units in advance of crews coming in this summer.
A whole paycheck and more for rent
Dene said another reason she considered leaving her dream job was realizing what it would cost her to make ends meet, even if she found a place.
"Because some of the places that I was looking at, you know, that's a whole paycheck. And then probably like another 10, 20 per cent of my second paycheck for the month that I would have to put towards just rent itself."
Dene's looked into other subsidies that might help her make ends meet, but said her relatively high income puts many of those, including a childcare subsidy, out of reach.
"I make too much, but I don't make enough to live here," she said. "It's just kind of stressful."
Dene said she doesn't qualify for any housing subsidies either because she hasn't yet lived in the territory long enough.
Dene said she sees people posting about moving to or back to Yellowknife for jobs, who are looking for accommodation, and she feels conflicted.
"I see all of these families ... moving up, coming up around this time ... and I just feel like I want to message them and be like, don't bother."
Dene posted about her situation recently on the Yellowknife Accommodations page on Facebook and got a response that she's hopeful will lead to a rental at the beginning of June.
"So that's good news. Just hoping nothing changes from now until then," she said.
For others still looking, there's no quick fix, according to Warburton and Bell.
Both say it's going to take time to build up rental supply, and Warburton said there's not much on the horizon other than a couple of smaller units expected this fall.
"There's a couple of large apartment buildings permitted or getting permitted, but those will be twelve or close to twenty-four months out for some of those," he said.
Warburton said one "relief valve" the city could support would be to allow construction camps for temporary works.
But currently that's not allowed and "the city has been pretty adamant that's not going to happen, he said.
"Really it's going to be a multi-year fix."