A 21-unit family housing complex that also serves as YWCA NWT’s administrative centre opened at a ceremony in Yellowknife on Tuesday.
Located on 54 Street next to the existing Lynn’s Place building, and under construction since May last year, the new complex – named Gotı̨lı Kǫ̀ – cost $18.8 million plus $250,000 fundraised for furnishings.
The majority of the money needed came from the federal government.
The building will provide housing for women and families who are “homeless, at risk of homelessness or living in unsafe situations,” said YWCA NWT executive director Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay during a tour on Monday.
People will begin moving in next month. The new units – three studios, 12 one-bed apartments and six two-bed apartments – help to fill some of the gap created when the YWCA’s 33-unit Rockhill apartment complex burned down in 2018.
Gotı̨lı Kǫ̀ means “our path” in Wıìlıìdeh Yatii, YWCA NWT stated in a news release issued after this report was first published.
Already, the YWCA’s thoughts are turning to the next project. While this building will help women and smaller families, Dumbuya-Sesay said, extra space is needed for larger families of five or more people.
“The need is so massive, especially for larger families,” said Alayna Ward, YWCA NWT’s director of community relations.
Here’s a look inside some of the new units and rooms.
The ground floor of the building is home to administrative offices, a gathering space, a room for kids to play in, space to store food, a clinic that connects people with legal advice and a housing office.
Having a housing team within the building is vital, Dumbuya-Sesay said. Staff can support residents of the building as well as people helped by the YWCA who live elsewhere. For example, the YWCA sometimes signs leases with Northview or other landlords on behalf of tenants who might not otherwise be able to rent, then offers the same kind of help available at a YWCA building.
Ward said housing support workers will make sure clients have enough food and access to education and employment programs or support services. If they live outside the building, people can get help to gradually transition their lease so it’s eventually in their name rather than assigned to the YWCA.
One room is named the Helen Tobie Room, for the late Dettah Elder who was known for her hospitality, opening up her home and helping people to learn traditional ways of life.
Diagonally across the hall, another room is named the Lyda Fuller Room.
“Lyda has been with the Y for over 23 years, working with the Y in Thompson before coming to Yellowknife,” said Dumbuya-Sesay. Fuller served as YWCA NWT’s executive director for more than 20 years before handing over the reins to Dumbuya-Sesay, and she also contributed financially to the building being unveiled this week.
Above the offices are three floors of units.
On the second floor, visited by Cabin Radio, one side of the building is given over to accessible apartments where items like countertops, bathrooms and other fittings have been designed with accessibility in mind.
Any given tenant is expected to stay in the building’s units for six months to three years, Dumbuya-Sesay said.
“The plan when they come in here is to figure out what the issues are that brought them to us in the first place, and start working on those issues right away,” she said.
“If it’s bad credit, then you work with them to make sure that they pay their rent consistently, supporting them with their kids, supporting them with whatever the issues are. Sometimes people need to go and get support for addictions or wellness programs. We do have an in-house wellness program, so that’s part of it.”
If you stay at the building for more than a year, when you move out, you’ll be allowed to take the unit’s furniture with you if you need it. For shorter-term stays, the furniture remains in place and is cleaned before the next tenants move in.
The YWCA has already received “a lot of applications,” Dumbuya-Sesay said, and a committee is reviewing them before selecting tenants based on need – and availability of units to suit each family size.
Not all units will be immediately used. Six units in winter and five in summer are to be set aside in case women and families need emergency housing.
“That’s really to help people that are in crisis, that need a space right now,” Dumbuya-Sesay said.
“They can stay here for up to three months rent-free. Part of how we’re able to cover that is through the funding we get from Housing NWT. That’s something we did in Rockhill as well, where we set aside some units for emergency housing.”
Last month, the CBC reported concern that monthly rents at the neighbouring Lynn’s Place are going up. The broadcaster quoted increases from $900 monthly to $1,135 for a studio, or $1,750 to $1,930 for a three-bed unit.
The YWCA says those increases are tied to annual assessments made by the federal Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which works out the average market rent in each territory. To be affordable, the YWCA must charge at most 80 percent of that average.
Defending the recent increases, Dumbuya-Sesay said the YWCA declined to hike its rents between 2016 and this year, even as the CMHC’s annual assessments went up.
This year, she said, the organization felt it had no choice given the cost pressures it faces.
Not all of the YWCA’s costs are covered by government funding. Lynn’s Place, for example, generates more than $200,000 a year in rental income, and even then the YWCA says it was “really going in the hole each year.” The new building is estimated to cost around $500,000 to run each year, including staff and maintenance. A portion of that will be paid for by the NWT government.
“It’s expensive. We are responsible for pretty-much everything,” said Dumbuya-Sesay.
“A couple of years ago, we had a sewer backup that cost almost $70,000. We had to come up with that money. Anything around the heat of the building, light, water, garbage, everything – we take care of that. The rents we collect and all the funding we look for is to help maintain that.
“Everything is going up. Wages of staff are going up. It’s not the same as 2016.”
Dumbuya-Sesay said affected tenants at Lynn’s Place were given more than three months’ notice.
Asked what would happen if someone couldn’t pay the new, higher rent, she said YWCA staff would work with the person to find a solution. She said that’s one reason why having a housing office inside the new building is important – people who need support on a regular basis can “go downstairs and just talk to somebody.”
“The point of raising the rent is not to kick people out or to put people in a situation where they can’t afford it,” she said.
“With this building, when CMHC give it to us, we have to operate it for 30 years. We have to make it sustainable and affordable … we need to increase the rents a little bit, based on CMHC’s criteria.”
She added that some people “think it’s a free building, that we get funding to operate everything, but that’s not the case.”
The final stop on the tour is a ground-floor storage room lined with fridges and a giant chest freezer.
Inside are rows and rows of meat packages.
Food Rescue, a charity that moves excess food from grocery stores to Yellowknife non-profits, will deliver here on a regular basis. Ward described the generosity of the Independent stores, which send food to the YWCA at steep discounts.
Every Thursday, Dumbuya-Sesay said, families will be able to receive food that helps them meet their needs.
“We really focus a lot on protein – milk, dairy, meat and stuff – because that’s too expensive,” she said.
To families reading this article who need urgent housing assistance, Dumbuya-Sesay said: “Call us. That’s the first step.” The number to reach the YWCA in Yellowknife is 867-920-2777.