By Sarah Sibley
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Northwest Territories’ housing crisis isn’t just about building more units. Many existing homes urgently need repairs and the level of demand is causing a scramble for solutions.
Almost half of the territory’s homes were reported to be either unsuitable, inadequate, or unaffordable in 2019. Since then, historic flooding and COVID-19 have found more cracks in the territory’s housing system.
Homes in the North are ageing. Decisions must be made to either replace units designed to last for half a century or keep on maintaining them.
Eleanor Young, president of the N.W.T. Housing Corporation, says her agency, responsible for the territory’s public housing, can’t meet demand for repairs. There isn’t enough money to cover the requests that come in.
“Are we keeping up with everything at this point? Currently, no,” Young said.
Instead, the housing corporation uses the process of “deferred maintenance” to put off repairs until, eventually, money can be found.
Urgent work is prioritized and, Young said, homes receive a “condition rating” at least once every two years “to decide where we put our repair and maintenance money.”
But the budget isn’t the only barrier. Often, residents don’t know programs exist, don’t know how to apply, or can’t get accepted.
According to the housing corporation’s latest annual report, 696 residents accessed housing programs in 2020-21. In the territory’s North Slave region, 252 people had applications approved. In the Dehcho region, to the west, that figure dropped to just 25, even though 417 Dehcho homes were identified as inadequate in 2019.
Community housing plans being slowly released by the housing corporation provide information about acceptance rates for programs.
The three plans so far released show less than half of people applying for housing corporation programs end up receiving assistance.
From 2006 to 2018, 404 applicants tried to access housing programs in the N.W.T. community. Of those, 172 were approved.
In the Inuvialuit community of Paulatuk, just seven of 67 applications were approved between 2006 and 2022. In Enterprise, to the south, 32 applications were approved and completed out of 64 received between 2006 and 2019.
Applications were primarily denied because applicants owed money to their local housing office. Others had income that was too large, or income that wasn’t enough.
Prior to 2021, Young said, two major barriers were the need for insurance, not always easily arranged in smaller communities, and land tenure.
Young said both of those requirements have now been eliminated.
“As soon as we made those changes in 2021, we saw the amount of applications rise significantly,” she said.
Rules for seniors accessing repair programs were loosened last year as well. But then, when a rush of people applied under the more lenient system, the housing corporation ran out of money to help everyone.
In the meantime, community leaders began to look for solutions that repair homes without the N.W.T. government’s direct involvement.
In Fort Good Hope, the K’asho Got’??n? Housing Society won a national award in 2021 for a community repair program that trains residents to do the job.
Where multiple projects might have to pile up before the N.W.T. government sends in a contractor, Fort Good Hope’s housing society can take immediate action as jobs arise, all while using funding provided by the housing corporation.
Arthur Tobac, the society’s director, said in January that approach had been used to fix about nine homes affected by last year’s spring flooding. Quick work can also be made of emergencies like frozen sewer lines or broken heating systems.
Young says that’s a “great model” in small communities that lack private contractors. Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson has said he wants similar societies to emerge in communities he represents.
The housing corporation says Nahanni Butte and the Kat?’odeeche First Nation each access similar funding to provide their own repair programs.
Ways to build local capacity are being tested by the territorial government, too.
This month, housing minister Paulie Chinna said contractors have been told since 2020 to hire a northern apprentice on any new project. To date, that has provided 21 apprenticeships, plus 12 others supported by the corporation.
Increasingly, though, Indigenous governments are concluding the quickest way to get homes repaired is to have their own plan.
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation, working to create its own housing strategy, is lobbying other levels of government to acquire “increased access to repairs for both public and private homes.”
Ryan Peters, the First Nation’s director of public works and infrastructure, said an agreement like the one established in Fort Good Hope allows the Yellowknives Dene to operate their own repair and maintenance programs in Dettah and Ndil?.
“We are hoping we can be an example of what can be done when First Nations, especially in the Northwest Territories, take responsibility and ownership of services, and also challenge the status quo as to how services are being delivered,” Peters said.
“Current models are not working, or current models might have worked but are now outdated.”
Peters ultimately wants to provide housing “designed by the First Nation, for the First Nation, and that can be sustained by the First Nation, and not have a generic approach toward certain solutions.”
Lena Black, the First Nation’s acting chief executive, wants housing to become an emblem of the Yellowknives Dene “taking pride in who we are as a people.”
“It’s ensuring that we are in charge of our own future,” she said.
As Indigenous governments explore new models, the housing corporation is revisiting its own.
The corporation is undergoing what it calls a renewal process to review and potentially revise its programs.
Young says the corporation is also trying to build more partnerships, a recognition both that Indigenous governments want control and that the federal government is the source of much-needed cash to get projects moving.
In Yellowknife, for example, repairs to 50 townhouses operated by the Borealis Housing Cooperative will be partly paid for through $9 million from a federal fund.
In February, Ottawa announced $80 million to help northern and isolated communities build housing and meet the mounting cost of supplies.
Young said the corporation is examining how to apply for that funding.
Sarah Sibley is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the CABIN RADIO . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI government funding.