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Online group meets to voice views on cost of living

Elizabeth McMillan
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 19, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - A cross-section of Yellowknifers - including construction workers wearing sullied coveralls, businessmen in ties, four city councillors, and even a teenager - gathered at the Yellowknife Public Library on Feb. 16 to discuss a common frustration: Yellowknife's high cost of living.

More than 30 residents debated how they could address the price of power, limited rental options and the challenge of affording a home. The group didn't come to any definitive solutions, but they did brainstorm how they could influence policy changes.

The meeting was the result of a Facebook group, "Yellowknife's cost of living is out of control," which now has more than 1,400 members.

Yellowknife resident Jennifer Pagonis launched the group one month ago after she reached wit's end over her high power bills. Juggling two jobs in a two-income household, Pagonis said she still finds it difficult to make ends meet, and suspected other families feel the same way. Apparently they did.

Frustrated residents soon flooded the group's discussion boards with posts about their own perspectives on taxes, local and territorial governments. Organized by Pagonis and fellow residents Jeff Corradetti and Norm Fillion, Tuesday night's meeting was an effort to share those concerns in person and form a committee of people willing to lobby the government.

The ideas bounced around ranged from legislating rent control, increasing the two per cent payroll tax and lobbying Northland Utilities for lower prices. Much of the evening's discussion focused on why there weren't more affordable housing options in Yellowknife.

People working in the construction business said zoning regulations had to be loosened to allow for more growth and said the city needs to do more to open up land for development.

The city councillors present - Bob Brooks, Mark Heyck, Amanda Mallon and Lydia Bardak - fielded questions. They said many of the issues were nothing new, and they encouraged people to bring their concerns to council meetings.

After talking for almost two hours, the group decided to plan another gathering and look into the possibility of resurrecting a ratepayers' association.

"It was productive for being very preliminary," said resident and attendee Wade Friesen.

"It takes a lot of energy for a person to lobby the city. If a person is able to do it, they can make progress."

Pagonis said even the modest turnout was indicative of people willing to put their time and energy toward effecting change. She said it was helpful to hear about the roadblocks council has encountered - for instance the shortage of land for available development - and said part of the challenge of raising concerns was not knowing how or where to begin. While several participants had lobbied the city before, others, including Pagonis, had never voiced their concerns in public.

Twenty-one-year-old Holly Laurin said it was the first time she'd attended a public forum and said she would feel more comfortable bringing up issues with a city councillor in the future. Laurin has lived in Yellowknife for the better part of four years but said she can't afford to stay much longer. She's already rented out the living room of her one-bedroom apartment and said more than half her income goes to utilities and rent.

"It's insane," she said. "I'm always catching up."

Laurin's problem isn't unique. Earlier this week, when announcing new mortgage regulations, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Canadians are carrying too much debt and putting too high a percentage of their income toward housing.

Troy Leonardis, 15, doesn't pay bills yet but said he was already worried about what will happen when it comes time for him to enter the workforce and keep a home of his own. He said he and his friends are already resigned to moving south.

"Even moving out of my parents' house is not going to happen until I'm at least 25, and that's not by choice," he said. Despite his willingness to get involved, Leonardis wasn't optimistic prices would change anytime soon.

"At least it got started," the teenager said. "I have a feeling it's not soon enough for my generation, though."

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