In his 38 years as a Yellowknife realtor, Rod Stirling has seen and heard just about every house-hunting story imaginable. Most of them have happy endings, although it can take a while to find them. Take the young couple, newly pregnant with their first child and shopping for a suitable home to start their family. Baby arrived right on time, but that happy event came months before the right home deal came along.
Perhaps they’re among the less fortunate—or at least, the most patient—buyers in Yellowknife’s uber-crunched real estate market, where in late March of this year there were only 10 active listings to choose from—nowhere near enough to meet demand. April brought a small measure of relief as a predictable seasonal upswing brought the number of homes for sale to 19. But the city-wide MLS real estate stats (comparing January to April, 2021 to 2022) all point to a bare-bones buyer’s market: only 42 units sold (down 29 per cent); only 62 new listings (down 26 per cent); fewer average days on the market: 28 (down 31 per cent).
“It’s a strong seller’s market and it goes in cycles, you know?” Stirling says. “And we’ve seen the cycles come and go since starting in 1984… There’s never really been a balanced market,” which he says goes beyond a simple supply-and-demand ratio. “That would be where people have some choice… and where they can look at a property, take a breath, and think about it for a few days, rather than having to get into a competitive, multi-offer situation where they have to make instant decisions.”
Yellowknife is hardly alone in its real estate challenges. Housing markets are under pressure across the North and across the country. The situation is slightly different in every region, depending on various factors. The Yukon, for example, is dealing with rapid population growth, which is leading to a housing shortage that has sent prices soaring. Even Iqaluit—which has only a small private real estate market—is seeing upward pressure. While the number of sales and prices have held steady over the past two years, the cost of housing per square foot has jumped roughly 20 per cent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
The impact of these trends has obviously caused economic pain for homebuyers, especially in the Yukon, where limited supply and rising prices are a double whammy. But what happens when you look a little deeper and talk to people with decades of experience in the market or who influence its parameters? It’s challenging to do so for every market. But a case study—in this instance, from Yellowknife—offers intriguing insights into the complexities that emerge when markets go mad.
Stirling, owner of Yellowknife’s Coldwell Banker brokerage, came to the NWT capital as a youngster with his military family in 1971. Today, he and his team work from an office in one of the city’s older downtown buildings, a location that has served over the years as a restaurant, a union headquarters, and a second-hand storage unit. (Long-timers may recall a polar bear mannequin standing on the roof, with a rain gutter strategically positioned between its hind legs.) Inside, a small wardrobe cabinet sits in one corner of the cramped office, topped by a flock of eight golden eagle sales trophies peering down. Dozens more sales plaques and medals decorate other offices and the basement.
When asked about the city’s current property drought, Stirling cites a litany of issues: too few builders, wallet-wilting construction costs north of $450 per square foot, and rising mortgage rates among them. The biggest barrier, however, is a cruel irony—a chronic lack of land available for new development.
“Here we are in this vast territory,” Stirling says. “We have a land-to-population ratio of less than one per hectare or something like that. What is the bottleneck? I think if you want to provide more housing and some more options for people to live, you know, it’s with land availability. And it’s got to be a can-do, not a can’t-do attitude.”
Sheila Bassi-Kellett’s spacious office at Yellowknife City Hall is dominated by a two-meter-tall aerial photograph of the city that covers the wall directly across from her desk. As the city manager, Bassi-Kellett looks at that map many times a day as she sifts through the daily grit of running a city of 22,000. But never far from the top of the pile is a chronic question: where, and how, can Yellowknife grow?
It’s not an optimistic picture. “When it comes to land development in Yellowknife, we have a really interesting dilemma,” says Bassi-Kellett, a 30-year resident of the city with a master’s degree in political science. Of the 10,514 hectares of land inside city boundaries, less than half—4,925 hectares—is available for potential development, according to the city’s 20-year community plan passed in July of 2020.
That’s a lot of land on anyone’s map, but for Yellowknife, there’s a big glitch: a mere 118 hectares is actually private or city-titled land. The overwhelming majority of it—97.3 per cent—is literally out of bounds as what is called untenured Commissioner’s Land.
The lands under that heading are a mix of private and public land controlled by various levels of government, including territorial parks, seismic testing facilities, mines being remediated, airport lands, and leased recreational lands. It also covers 1,034 hectares of land that are under interim withdrawals while the Akaitcho Dene First Nations and the federal and NWT governments resolve a land claim. All those lands remain within Yellowknife’s municipal boundary, but are excluded from development consideration.
Bassi-Kellet calls the amount of vacant Commissioner’s Land in Yellowknife—some of which could be developed to take pressure off the housing market—“jaw-droppingly big.” Yet the city can’t do much if it doesn’t have control. “We’ve been lobbying the territorial government pretty aggressively,” Bassi-Kellet says. “It is only appropriate that we have control over the vacant Commissioner’s Land within our municipal boundary.”
That lack of control is costing Yellowknife growth opportunities, she says, citing a tour operator who wanted a plot to develop into an aurora-viewing venture. “It was so frustrating to have to say to this operator, you’ll have to go outside of the community boundary. So, there we are, losing business potential and tax revenue, all of those things because we had nothing to sell.”
Still, Bassi-Kellet tempers her frustration with a degree of sympathy for what the territorial government faces in its own dealings: a mash-up of decades of land-use policies and regulations that it’s trying to smooth out, complicated by the devolution of land controls from the federal government 10 years ago. And there’s the cost of legally resurveying the myriad Commissioner’s Land parcels, a mountain of work that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take years to finalize.
The city’s only tangible path forward in relieving the real estate market, Bassi-Kellett says, is to build infill or sell the handful of lots it has available. A browse through the city’s website, however, reveals a distressingly small selection, a total of roughly 25 lots, both residential and industrial. “So, we want to identify infills for other opportunities for residential development,” Bassi-Kellet says. “let’s use the land that we have right now.”
Kim Knutson, owner, broker, and salesperson with Remax North of 60 Realty, echoes the call for making more land available. But like Bassi-Kellett, she understands the hurdles. “I think this city and the territorial government has to release some land… This is something that the city is intimately familiar with. There’s so much vacant Commissioner’s Land in the city.”
Knutson is also president of the 19-member NWT Association of Realtors, including three in her office on Yellowknife’s Old Airport Road and an associate in Norman Wells. On a Thursday morning at her office, her labradoodle puppy, June, clamours for attention as Knutson trawls her computer looking for trends—for instance, that Yellowknife prices have gone up $80,000 on average over the past three years.
Even with those prices and a drought of properties, Knutson says her most active sales year in the past eight was 2021. Stirling, meanwhile, is clocking in the neighbourhood of 80 hours a week, as are many of his peers.
Knutson sees many out-of-town clients calling to her with solid jobs waiting for them in Yellowknife, anxious to find a place that suits them. And she’s anxious to meet that need. “It’s so hard because maybe it’s great if you’re selling, but it’s hard because there’s so many good people that are looking for homes. And you want to help people.” Advice to the buyer? “You need to be pre-approved (for a mortgage) and decisive – with a professional realtor who’s in your corner.”
Since You Can’t Make More Land…
Vacant Commissioner’s Land occupies a large proportion of Yellowknife’s total area, making it hard for the city to release new blocks for development as it does not control these lands. So, does the NWT government support transferring some of these lands to the city? “Yes,” says Blair Chapman, director of lands for the territorial government. “There has been an ongoing dialogue between
ourselves and the city, initiated a couple of years ago just prior to the pandemic.”
Chapman says the talks “have brought about some positive outcomes,” largely centred on a program to bundle various parcels into block land transfers. Chapman says that allows the city to prioritize the lands it wants and helps streamline some of the paperwork. That includes a formalized and sometimes protracted consultation process for any land disposition issue, with an extensive list of potentially affected parties, including Metis and First Nations.
Given that the consultation, surveying, and technical processes go smoothly, the NWT government will then grant title to the city,
for the legal transaction fee of $1.
Still, bulk land transfers are not a quick work-around. Chapman says in the past two years, only 23 parcels were transferred
to communities for an assessed value of approximately $5.2 million (no details were provided on the actual area of land transferred.)
One of the biggest barriers is the local professional capacity to have the lands surveyed—and to pay for it. Both Chapman and the City
of Yellowknife grapple with this, as the territorial government has not linked its support for transfers with the funding to enable it.
The Yukon Market.
The Yukon economy is booming, thanks to a new gold rush that has brought massive investment to the territory. In addition to dollars, it has also brought people. Lots of them. According to Statistics Canada, the population of the territory grew 12.1 per cent—almost 4,400 people—between 2016 and 2021, the largest percentage increase in the country.
That growth is showing in housing trends, with the value of real estate transactions rising quickly—13.1 per cent in 2021, according to the territorial government. You can put a lot of that growth down to rising home prices. Unfortunately, that total has more to do with the cost of buying a home rather than the number of homes available. Prices are soaring in the face high demand and low supply. Last year, for example, the average price of a detached home soared 14.2 per cent, to $645,000. Duplexes moved even higher, posting a 19 per cent increase in average prices, bringing them
Market forces are leading to increased spending on residential construction, which reached $268 million in 2021. But it’s hard to say if that offers much relief. For starters, 40 per cent of that total—$102 million—was spent on renovations, not new construction. Moreover, prices for building materials have risen due to supply-chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to costs across the board.