Housing in Fort Simpson: what's going on?
Fort Simpson's local housing authority has been dissolved amid a flurry of accusations and calls for an independent examination of what exactly occurred.
Meanwhile, residents are complaining of bed bugs and the local MLA has expressed concern over whether the correct process is being followed.
The NWT Housing Corporation, which chose to dissolve the local authority, alleges it was being mismanaged, losing money, and failing to do its job – unlike 22 other, similar authorities across the territory.
Former officials of the local authority say, on the contrary, the NWT Housing Corporation overreached and unnecessarily interfered. They say a personality clash, and bullying, led to the corporation's decision.
The fallout has unsettled leaders of the Dehcho First Nations. In a news release on Monday, the office of Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian said an independent assessment was required after "troubling allegations" that the housing corporation "tried to dictate" the local authority's decisions.
Also of concern to the Grand Chief is a claim that the housing corporation did not properly acknowledge or treat a bed-bug problem in public housing. The corporation denies this.
A former director of the housing authority, Muaz Hassan, also called for a performance review and forensic audit of the authority – and the local operations of the housing corporation.
On Tuesday, Hassan told Cabin Radio the territory-wide housing corporation's treatment of Fort Simpson's housing authority amounted to bullying and negligence.
Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson said he wants to make sure due process was followed in the firing of the housing manager and the dissolution of the board. Thompson remains "deeply concerned" about the issue of bed bugs in Fort Simpson public housing, despite assurances from housing minister Alfred Moses that the problem had been handled.
In this report, we set out in detail what has happened to date.
Local housing authority dissolved
As first reported by CBC, the NWT Housing Corporation dissolved the Fort Simpson Housing Authority's board and let go of its manager following an audit which detailed several "inefficiencies" in how the authority was run. Cabin Radio has requested a final copy of the audit, however, a draft version of the audit performed by a Yellowknife accounting firm has been seen by Cabin Radio.
Problems included damage deposits being used for operations instead of being held in a separate account; a former manager being overpaid $5,000 in severance; and a 'conflict of interest' with the authority spending more than $24,000 at a hardware store owned by a housing authority board member. The board member in question said local procurement rules were followed and disputes the conflict of interest claims as board members do not approve such expenditures.
Though the local authority submitted an action plan to rectify these issues, NWT Housing Corporation boss Tom Williams said that plan was not good enough. The corporation instead appointed an administrator to take over operations, meaning the manager of the housing authority and its board members were relieved of their duties.
Williams told Cabin Radio getting the authority back into good standing could take between six months and a year, adding its deficit was "significant compared to the overall budget." According to documents provided to Cabin Radio, the operational deficit for the year ending March 31, 2019 was a little more than $400,000.
"There is not any corruption, no money being stolen. The money went for activities and for salaries of the manager," Hassan said. "You will always have a deficit in the service industry."
Hassan, who is also a village councillor, told Cabin Radio he wants to see a forensic audit on the past five years of the Fort Simpson Housing Authority's work –as well as that of the housing corporation in the area.
Characterizing the housing corporation's treatment of the local authority as bullying, Hassan said the local housing authority should be able to govern in the communities they know best.
"We don't want another person, who has nothing to do with our communities, to dictate to us what we should do in our communities and how we serve our people. That is the main issue," Hassan said.
Hassan believes the firing of the local manager was due not to the audit, but a personality issue. He raised the question of racial discrimination, stating both he and the manager are African-American. When asked for examples of discrimination or bullying, Hassan said he believed that to be best left to a forensic audit.
Williams, responding on behalf of the housing corporation, said the claim of racism struck him as surprising and "unwarranted."
"Throughout the territory, we have 23 local housing organizations," said Williams. "We have 22 of them where we have an excellent relationship with the board and the organization. When things go awry, people point fingers."
Williams said the decision to appoint an administrator was not taken lightly and is a rare step in the NWT.
The Dehcho First Nations joined the call for an independent assessment on Monday, expressing concern at two key allegations: first, that the housing corporation "failed to support treatment for bedbug infestation and has denied the problem's existence," and second, that the corporation may have been "trying to dictate the decisions coming from the local housing authority."
"If these claims are true, then that shows a failure of the housing corporation to ensure adequate and suitable housing for the residents of the Dehcho," the news release stated.
Stressing housing is a "critical issue" and "extremely important for our people," the group called for related communication between government organizations to be investigated in the assessment – and suggested if the claims are true "the Dehcho may be better suited to deal with housing issues ourselves."
Hassan concurred with the Dehcho First Nations that local housing may be better overseen by Indigenous governments.
Thompson, however, did not join the call for an assessment – though the MLA did say he wants to ensure due process was followed when the decision was made to dissolve the housing authority.
"I want to make sure that people are treated fair and properly," he said. "And we're talking about building the capacity of the board – to me, it's important. It's about local people looking after local issues."
Calling the decision to dissolve the housing authority "unfortunate," Thompson said he does not have enough information to say whether it was the right course of action.
"It's just trying to get a clearer picture and understanding of what's going on and how it happened. There are lots of 'he said, she said' going on," he said. "I was under the impression that they were going to try to work together on it."
Williams said an independent assessment is not warranted. "We do have the authority as a protector of the public purse to intervene. And that's what we did in this case," he said.
Is there a bed-bug problem in Simpson?
Despite the housing corporation and the minister responsible stating a bed-bug problem at two NWT Housing Corporation complexes had been dealt with, Thompson says he is still hearing from residents worried about the issue.
In an email seen by Cabin Radio, Revi Lau-a – the corporation's director of policy and planning – stated on July 9 there are "no untreated units or unresolved issues with bed bugs in public housing in Fort Simpson."
The email said affected seniors' units had been treated, referencing the Stanley Isaiah Seniors Home – also commonly referred to as "the cluster."
In an email to Suzette Montreuil, the executive director of the NWT Seniors Society, Lau-a said the method of treatment involved heat-treating individual units, which can be completed in four hours. The treatment, Lau-a stated, was "proving to be effective" and residents did not need to leave their units for extended periods.
Williams, this week, told Cabin Radio the bed-bug situation in these units is "well under control."
On Friday, Williams said, an inspection of all units where there were claims of bed bugs – 29 in total – turned up six new cases. They are now being treated and Williams expects the issue to be "alleviated" in the next few days.
However, as first reported by NNSL, the local housing authority had planned a far different treatment to the one eventually used by the NWT-wide corporation.
The authority had planned a more extensive treatment process in which residents of the seniors' home (and a nine-plex) would relocate to the village recreation centre while removing the bed bugs.
This option was discussed at a meeting in June called by the manager of the Fort Simpson Housing Authority. The meeting included the village, the local MLA and chiefs, and the regional health authority.
The treatment, according to an email from the manager of the housing authority, would take several days.
"There is controversy about [the relocation] and I'm going to let housing decide what needs to be done," said Montreuil, whose organization was invited by the former Fort Simpson housing manager to play a role in the relocation.
"It is always important to consider the health and safety and comfort of seniors in housing complexes. And that's why our organization would be interested in situations and want to get involved," she said.
Hassan believes the housing corporation ignored the reality on the ground.
"That's negligence if you don't deal with these problems," he said, characterizing the continuing issue as a form of abuse.
This is not the first time bed bugs have been a concern in Fort Simpson's housing corporation units. According to emails seen by Cabin Radio, the bugs were also an issue at the seniors' home in March and April 2019.
The presence of these pests needs to be reported as soon as possible, Williams said, who feels the heat treatment used is proving effective.
"We do regular checks whenever we do a procedure in a unit. We do a number of follow-ups to see if it did eradicate the problem," Williams said.
"If it didn't, we go back in again. But there's no need to move everybody out."