The Aspen Apartments building in June 2021. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
In a country where cities are creatures of provinces and territories, municipalities don’t ordinarily fund territorial projects.
But following a Yellowknife city council vote earlier this week, that’s exactly what will happen, using $1.3 million the city previously received through the federal Reaching Home program.
After much discussion last fall, councillors voted in November to allocate that funding toward a supportive housing facility at Aspen Apartments, a vacant complex that formerly served as housing for federal workers.
At the time, the plan was for a yet-to-be-determined non-profit to take over the facility upon completion.
But earlier this month, Housing NWT approached the city with an alternative plan: the territory would pay for the capital costs and retrofit of Aspen Apartments, and the city would put the Reaching Home money toward a second project – transitional housing for addictions recovery.
This will entail “either a retrofit of an existing six-plex or a new-build six-bedroom facility with common living spaces,” said Mayor Rebecca Alty in a Facebook post announcing the change.
On Monday evening, city council formally voted to allocate the remaining funding for the 2022-23 fiscal year to the GNWT for “permanent supportive housing or transitional housing or other eligible capital activity in Yellowknife.”
The understanding is that the money will go toward a transitional housing facility that could fill a recognized gap in the NWT. For years, politicians and residents have called for more local aftercare to help people with addictions successfully return to their communities after treatment.
Previously, when discussing using the cash to fund Aspen Apartments, Alty and several councillors said funding that project meant doing something beyond simply topping up non-profits every year.
With Aspen back off the table, why not divert the cash back to non-profits instead of another new project?
“If we struggle to fund programs now, like street outreach and other things, how are we going to fund more and more assets over time?” Councillor Tom McLennan asked.
“The city hears this a lot from NGOs that are working to address social issues, particularly homelessness in the community,” said city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett, speaking at the March 13 council meeting.
“They always need more money, and we fully understand that. So that is certainly an option and that is something that had been contemplated. But the ability to have something that will be a long-term, lasting legacy, as opposed to just seeking to top up operational funding, is something that could be optimal for our community in the long-term.”
Housing NWT and the city hope to find a non-profit able to run the new facility.
“If we don’t really have the certainty that it’s the GNWT that’s taking on the burden of executing the project or the operational side of things, will we just be stuck with another non-profit that lacks capacity?” Councillor Cat McGurk asked.
“I hear your concerns about who’s going to operate it,” responded Alty. “The one thing we’ve seen with the GNWT is that when NGOs don’t step up and bid then they do take it on, like with the day shelter in Yellowknife and the day shelter in Inuvik.”
Discussions in the NWT legislature last year suggest that while the GNWT does step in when faced with those circumstances, the territorial government is not content with that form of arrangement.
But with the clock ticking to find a home for the funding by March 31, councillors agreed that funding the transitional housing program was the most meaningful outcome.
“The process was of course not ideal, but I do think it’s an opportunity. Now we’ll get two assets to help prevent and end homelessness, versus one,” said Alty in closing.
“Could it be done quicker, better, differently? Yes, but I hate for process to get in the way of actually delivering a big community asset.”