Pressure mounts for action on unfit housing in the NWT
As the NWT’s MLAs reconvened for their first sitting of the year, the territory’s housing minister came under immediate pressure to address the state of housing.
Yellowknife MLAs Kevin O’Reilly and Katrina Nokleby lambasted housing minister Paulie Chinna for slow responses to questions and inaction on conditions at the city’s Lanky Court and Nordic Arms apartment complexes.
“It often takes months for any response to my questions. And when I do get one, they are often vague and lacking details,” said Nokleby. “When is this minister going to do anything for my constituents and others in the territory?”
Nokleby and Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland also scrutinized the territorial government’s approach to homelessness and how funding is allocated, given the department does not currently collect data on homelessness.
Data collection “is something the government has not put together,” Chinna acknowledged.
“We don’t have those numbers. What I can do is work on the wait list that we do have throughout the Northwest Territories and the significant need for housing across the North.”
O’Reilly described a “long and difficult process” to get responses from the minister on dangerous conditions at Lanky Court in Yellowknife, where problems have been documented since 1988.
“More importantly, actual improvements to housing conditions do not seem to have materialized,” O’Reilly said.
He described cockroach and bedbug infestations, severe mold, and illegal charges by landlords.
“It’s hard to believe that we treat people in this manner,” he said. “Looking at the core housing need and other data from the bureau of statistics, we see that these horrible conditions are commonplace across the Northwest Territories.”
Chinna apologized for the delay in responses, chalking up wait times to new staff and Housing NWT’s recent change in strategy.
“We are getting more coordinated, and hopefully we’re able to respond a lot more quicker,” she said.
Addressing comments about Lanky Court, Chinna said the department was working to help tenants recognize that things like pests and broken windows are problems.
“I’m starting to recognize that this is quite a huge issue here in Yellowknife with Lanky Court,” said Chinna.
“We’re looking at educational materials for the tenants as well, when we’re looking at what needs to be maintained, what needs to be recognized, and when to call our local housing authorities right away to deal with these issues.”
Where to go from here?
These kinds of exchanges in legislature aren’t new. Tenants’ advocate Lisa Thurber says she has had enough of hearing stories about deteriorating apartment complexes like Lanky Court, Nordic Arms and Birchwood.
“It’s time that those living without heat, living with cockroaches and mold, band together and say no more,” she said.
Thurber believes that the legislation that governs landlord-tenant relationships, the Residential Tenancies Act, is “one-sided, very landlord-sided, and it needs work.”
Tenants can go to the NWT Rental Office with housing challenges, but one resident of Birchwood Apartments in Yellowknife – currently facing a 46-percent rent increase – said trying to solve problems through the office is “a joke for tenants.”
“And for this particular issue, there’s no limit to rent increases,” they continued, “so it would be a waste of time. People are intimidated by the rental board and the process, and some can’t afford the fees.”
Thurber continues to work on the creation of an NWT Tenants’ Association. Like O’Reilly and Nokleby, she says she has found that pressuring Housing NWT has had limited impact.
“There’s a need for people to be able to go into a department and get the help they need,” she said. “If I can’t, as an educated Aboriginal female, manoeuvre a department to get fair and adequate housing and repairs to housing, then how can a normal person living in poverty do it?”
Thurber hopes her association will support tenants interested in making a complaint to the rental office, while helping to collect data the government isn’t for the sake of future work and advocacy.
“It’s a really long process to try to get a landlord to even fix anything within the 10 days required by the Residential Tenancies Act,” she said. “But going forward, once it’s past 10 days, we’re looking for compensation and we’re looking for a solution.”
Housing scarcity in the Northwest Territories means people in unsafe living conditions, or paying high rent, can feel there is no alternative.
“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,” said Nokleby in legislature.
If tenants find the territorial government is failing to provide solutions, Thurber wants them to know there is another option: she’s hoping to help renters legally file with the NWT Rental Office to collectively withhold rent until issues are addressed.
She believes that could be a powerful tool.
While tenants at Birchwood, Lanky Court and Nordic Arms have yet to take that kind of collective step, some are feeling the squeeze.
“I’m worried that by speaking out I’m going to be evicted,” the Birchwood tenant said. “But my kids deserve so much better than this.”
Correction: March 8, 2023 – 16:36 MT. This article originally stated that Lisa Thurber supported the concept of rent strikes in some circumstances. She doesn’t, but has worked with organizations like BC’s Rent Strike Bargain in the past, and would support tenants filing with the NWT Rental Office to have their rent legally withheld in some situations.