By Caitrin Pilkington
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby is set to bring forward a motion on Thursday calling for a limit to rent increases in the Northwest Territories.
The idea of a rent cap in the territory has been gaining momentum. In February, tenants who lack heat in units at a Yellowknife apartment complex faced rent increases of up to 46 percent.
A petition to limit rent increases using legislation, as happens in various other jurisdictions, began circulating shortly afterward.
Nokleby’s motion will call on the N.W.T. government to update the territory’s Residential Tenancies Act “to include maximum allowable rent adjustments which are no more than the five-year average of the Canada consumer price index.”
The motion suggests that rent increases above the cap should be possible, but only through an application to the N.W.T. Rental Office.
Later this week, other regular MLAs will be able to discuss the proposal and ministers will have the opportunity to respond.
Last month, Nokleby asked justice minister RJ Simpson to consider measures to prevent unreasonable rent increases.
“All of the resources of the department are tied up right now, and so there won’t be any work on this,” Simpson responded at the time. “But it will inform the work that will be done in the next government.”
Simpson also noted that the idea of a rent cap was considered in 2015 and ultimately, the government of the day decided against it.
But Nokleby believes the situation has changed significantly since then.
She says the cost of living, upcoming changes to the carbon tax and other factors mean many are living paycheque to paycheque, and even small rent increases can place people at risk of homelessness.
“Without having this cap in place, all we’re going to see is more gentrification of apartment buildings,” she said.
“Because why wouldn’t a landlord say: ‘Well, it’s better for me to rent to a professional moving up from the south than to continue to rent to a low-income family who may struggle to make ends meet and can’t afford higher rates.’
“The zero vacancy we’re seeing at this point really pushes the need for protection for people who are vulnerable to rent hikes.”
Some landlords agree that the current system is unsustainable.
“I’ve had instances myself of wanting to bring people on to my team,” Kathryn Pakenham, a Yellowknife landlord, said last year.
“When my organization tries to hire people, they say yes. They want the job. But later they have to back out because they can’t find housing.”
Pakenham thinks minimizing the insecurity and vulnerability associated with renting is in the territory’s best interest.
“No one is going to want to come up here if they know they’re going to be put in a way more precarious situation than other provinces,” she said.
Over the weekend, according to Nokleby, tenants at Yellowknife’s Lanky Court said rats were now a feature alongside broken windows, broken appliances, bed bugs, cockroaches and mold.
“When you spend excessive amounts of money on your rent and all you receive in return is a moldy, pest-infested apartment, with sketchy heating and people smoking crack in the hallways, it’s extremely demoralizing,” the MLA said.
Lisa Thurber, who is setting up an N.W.T. tenants’ association, has called on tenants in that situation to “band together and say no more.”
Thurber is hoping to help renters organize rent strikes, in which tenants collectively refuse to pay rent until changes are made.
But Adelle Guigon, the N.W.T.’s chief rental officer, said she was “compelled to strongly discourage such action as it would constitute a breach of the tenant’s obligation to pay rent.”
“Tenants must always pay their rent in full and on time, even when there are other issues with the tenancy,” Guigon wrote, pointing to other options when landlords don’t hold up their end of a contract.
When landlords fail to keep premises in a good state of repair and provide vital services like heat, water and electricity, tenants can ask the rental office to hold their rent until landlords comply with their legal obligations.
“In those cases, the tenant must make an application to a rental officer regarding those issues and may include the rent payment with their application,” wrote Guigon. “The rental officer who hears the matter may then decide whether to continue receiving the rent in trust until the necessary repairs are completed.”
Nokleby said tenants are “getting desperate” and something needs to change.
“I have learned that the only thing that seems to move people here is to make a big public thing about it,” she said.
“That’s why we’re having to do motions, to try and bring any action out of some of these ministers.”
Caitrin Pilkington is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with CABIN RADIO. The LJI program is federally funded.