The Aspen Apartments building in June 2021. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
After months of deliberation, Yellowknife’s Community Advisory Board on Homelessness (Cab) has voted to allocate the rest of this year’s Reaching Home funding to Aspen Apartments.
Reaching Home funding comes from a national strategy designed to help address and prevent homelessness. Over five years beginning in 2019, the city is set to receive a total of $12,284,271.
If the plan gets the green light from city councillors, this means that over $1.3 million federal dollars will be set aside for the city to use to renovate the Aspen apartment complex and find an organization willing to run it as a supportive public housing facility.
The remaining $150,000 will be allocated to on-the-land housing solutions for unsheltered Indigenous women and girls as part of a program developed in partnership with Keepers of the Circle, a national non-profit. The Indigenous-led effort is creating carbon neutral off-grid housing units out of materials that can withstand Northern winters. Homes are set to showcase at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, an international exhibition of architecture.
“Too many of us are unsheltered on our own territories,” said Katłįà Lafferty in a presentation on the project in an October 20 advisory board meeting. “This project will be Northwest Territories specific, and we’re collaborating between Indigenous governments, municipal and territorial governments, as well as private donors.”
In total, the board unanimously voted to allocate $1,318,864.34 toward the renovations, operations and maintenance costs that would come with acquiring Aspen Apartments. The building is owned by the Canada Housing and Mortgage Association and would be transferred to a yet-to-be-determined non-profit, so there would be no additional purchase cost for the city to cover.
Discussions in Wednesday’s meeting focussed on questions that remain about the project, such who will take over operations of the building and the results of an environmental assessment of the property. Advisory board members were given copies of the environmental assessment report and other supplementary matierials, but the city did not return a request for Cabin Radio to review these documents by deadline.
What are the risks?
“So if we allocate the funding and nobody bids to take it on, what do we do?” asked Nick Sowsun, a Cab member. “I think there’s interest out there, but worst case scenario, what happens if we can’t find a non-profit to run it?
“It would have to come back to Cab for discussion,” said Mayor Rebecca Alty. “But there have been NGOs who have seemed interested in the possibility of acquiring it.”
The environmental assessment provided to members confirmed the presence of asbestos in the building and noted there had been a fuel spill on a nearby property.
As for how this would affect the costs of renovations and repair, the report provided information and included numbers which Rob Waburton, Cab member and owner of CloudWorks, put into context for members.
“I currently own, operate or asset manage 25 commercial tenants and 70 residential tenants over 13 properties,” said Waburton in the meeting. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years. My knowledge is very deep on how a building runs and operates. I’ve done $25 million bucks in projects, including two full remediations for fuel contamination and two complete properties for asbestos remediation. So when we’re talking about Aspen, I have done all the things this report talks about.”
Waburton went on to note that while the price to address those issues at first might appear “catastrophic,” it includes some unorthodox bills, such as the cost of demolition and remediation plans that would exceed regulatory requirements.
“These are not standard practices in my industry,” he said. “This is very unique to the GNWT. Nobody else evaluates buildings based on those things.
“This is a manageable asset which you can fix up, and considering that it’s free from the feds, I think it makes a ton of sense,” concluded Waburton.
Still, the summary still left some with concerns.
“They acknowledged [in the report] that they did not perform a complete assessment,” said Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council and Cab member. “So there may be other things that are there.”
McKee noted that the plan would be for Aspen to become a supportive housing project run by an NGO — meaning the apartments wouldn’t just be housing, but also a workplace, which would introduce additional considerations around liability.
“The standards are very different, and I have a very good background in that,” said McKee. “Tenancy law and labour law are two different things. If someone in the workforce there becomes sick, that is a huge responsibility for the organization taking on this property.”
McKee said non-profits often fail to consider that they are held accountable to the Employment Standards Act, just like any other business. And while the total costs of the remediation remain an unknown, it might prevent an non-governmental organization (NGO) from taking on that risk.
“This is an aspect of running an NGO that sometimes even NGOs don’t necessarily understand,” said McKee. “There is the same responsibility for workplace compliance and labour standards. I have the same responsibilities Giant Mine does. If that property becomes mine, that remediation is my responsibility. So when I look at this, I see an onerous burden for the NGO taking this on. What happens down the line if they can’t meet these costs?”
Ultimately, McKee did vote to proceed with the Aspen project.
“There’s a lot of language in there that sounds terrifying, but it’s essentially boilerplate language consultants put in reports to ensure they’re not liable,” said Waburton. “But if I were reading that assessment in a personal capacity, for one of my own projects, I would not be concerned.”
What are the rewards?
Many also spoke out in favour of Aspen, such as Wilbert Cook.
“We’re not always going to agree on everything, and we will never live in a perfect world where all requests for funding can be satisfied,” said Cook. “So there are tough decisions to make, and I appreciate everyone’s opinion. They’re all very valid. However, I do want to reiterate my support for updating Aspen Apartments so it can be structured to house homeless people.”
Cook described his experiences walking in downtown Yellowknife and speaking to the homeless about worsening conditions and limited spots in shelters.
“This homelessness problem is not going away – in fact, it’s getting worse. It’s getting very tough out there.”
For those who have believed in the idea since the beginning, Wednesday’s meeting was a milestone. For Waburton in particular, as it was also his last, as once he is sworn in a a city councillor he cannot also sit on the advisory board.
“Having the opportunity with this funding for the city to buy Park Place for Home Base, and to hopefully have Aspen transferred as well, will mean 44 more housing units are going to the people who need them the most,” he said. “So that’s pretty amazing.”