story by Janna Graham | artwork by Marie-Andrée Bédard
I’m slowly sipping coffee out of a paper cup and grinning foolishly across the table at the man I hope will be my landlord. He has a small house that’s been sitting empty, according to the neighbors, for more than a year. In a housing-poor town like Yellowknife, I’m all over it like butter on a hot potato.
It’s a tiny house, no more than 400 square feet. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s everything I need. I envision a bookshelf and record player in the living room; cast iron frying pans hanging by the stove; my muddy rubber boots at the back door. I’ll work that neglected front lawn into a garden and host community barbeques. After more than a year of scanning classified ads in search of a place, I’ve found the perfect nest.
There’s just one small problem. Donny, the owner, speaks only Chipewyan. I do not. So, I’ve asked Fred, a colleague, to act as an intermediary and translator. After weeks of trying to track Donny down, we find him holding court at A & W.
So here we are, just the three of us. I’m not even sure they’re talking about the fact I want to rent his house. Occasionally they glance over at me, but I’d wager they’re actually talking about the weather, hockey, the price of gas, whatever.
I have some cash in my pocket and consider casually fanning it out like a hand of poker to show how serious (and desperate) I am. I resist. The optics of such a gesture could be misconstrued. Instead, I just sit there, all nervous and quiet, taking quick sips of coffee and grinning like a fool.
After a painful half hour of this, the meeting ends when Fred turns to me and says he’s told Donny I’m interested in renting the house. Donny looks at me and then back out the window. I was hoping for the chance to explain what a great tenant I’d be, but I get the feeling they want to discuss it, so I shake hands and leave.
The next day, I call Fred.
Me: “So, what did he say?”
Fred: “He thinks he wants to keep the house for his sister.”
Me: “Does his sister live in Yellowknife?”
Fred: “No, she lives in Alberta. In case she wants it some day.”
I sigh loudly, not hiding my disappointment.
Fred: “But let’s not give up. I think he’ll rent it to you at some point.”
I keep hearing that finding a place in this town hinges on two things – timing and who you know. So, I’m on a perpetual hunt, and I don’t waste opportunities. At every party and potluck, I drop the hint that I’m on the lookout.
When I hear someone is moving out of a cheap place – particularly something down near the lake – I’m there. One night, hearing that a friend of a friend of a friend wasmoving out of their small, not overly expensive one-bedroom in Old Town, I hopped on my bike and rolled down the hill.
They answered the door in their pajamas. After quickly introducing myself and pretending I was there on a social call, I spat out, “I hear you’re moving out?”
Without skipping a beat, the renters responded, “sorry, it’s been taken.”
It’s almost a guarantee that an affordable spot is staked and claimed before the current tenants are even planning on moving. And that makes sense – given the vacancy rate usually hovers around one per cent.
So I walk around town and scope out potential rentals. Seeing a place, I put my journalistic training to use and find out who owns it. It’s never up for rent, but I ask to be put on the often non-existent waiting list. If I hear of something opening up, I beg my friends to not tell anyone else. I’m not proud of what I’ve become, but it’s a question of survival.
I’ve even called garages with ‘For Rent’ signs hanging in the window to be told it was a shop space, not a living space. The mechanic who stores his old truck there had a good laugh at that one. I asked a friend if I could live in his school bus. Turns out, he uses it in the summer. I’ve looked into hauling a small camper trailer up from Alberta, but by the time December rolls around, it would be pretty cold in there.
And I know I’m not the only one. A friend of mine is a professional, full-time house sitter, moving from place to place. The only thing that keeps her from being officially homeless is her storage locker of possessions in Kam Lake and a solid string of house sits with coddled dogs.
A colleague who recently moved to town with her six-month-old son almost had a break down at the skuzzy places housing companies had on offer. Greeted by a veil of skunky weed and stepping over vomit in the lobby in one of the buildings, she eventually settled for a one-bedroom on Gitzel for $1,500.
The crazy thing is we all accept that’s the way it is. To live in Yellowknife, if you’re not in a position to buy a $300,000 trailer, you’re going to pay through the nose for substandard rental housing.
That’s why these days, I’m looking into building my own tiny home. I’ve ordered the plans from a company specializing in Do-It-Yourself buildings – these are small, eight-by-twelve foot houses built on a trailer so they can be parked and moved around. With land scarce and heating costs high, small makes sense in Yellowknife. With all the energy I’ve expended looking for a place to call home, I might as well put that into building.
That said, I recently bumped into Fred. He tells me we should set up another meeting with Donny. You never know, he says, he just might rent that house to you.
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