Housing researchers urge YK's developers to think communally

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Did you find a poster about affordable housing in your mail this week? It's from researchers urging Yellowknife to begin thinking differently about how the city provides housing.

The cost of both owning and renting in Yellowknife has long frustrated residents.

Julia Christensen and Lisa Freeman began their study by asking people who work in housing to set out the barriers to affordable housing, and the possible solutions.

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They are now sharing the results of that research to get residents engaged in developing ideas – with the topic set to feature prominently both in Yellowknife and elsewhere during this fall's territorial election.

"There's a desire from a lot of residents to see more engagement by government in looking at rents and what can be done to keep rents affordable," said Christensen, who is from Yellowknife.

For people on a low income, having rental arrears with the NWT Housing Corporation is preventing people in need from accessing public housing, the researchers found.

The researchers said the problematic cost of rent is compounded by the similarly high cost of building new housing – plus what they term a virtual monopoly in the private rental market. (Northview Property REIT owns more than 1,300 units in the NWT according to its 2018 annual report. A precise Yellowknife figure is not available.)

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The researcher suggest rent control, at territorial level, could help.

The study's results indicate very little available and affordable housing for those who need it most – single adults at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness.

When building new affordable housing in Yellowknife, the researchers say there is a need to think beyond the standard single apartment.

"For people who are marginally housed or maybe coming out of homelessness, there's often this idea that people want their own space, they want their own apartment or individual room," Freeman said.

What they actually heard was many people asking for housing where they could be supported and socialize with others in communal spaces.

"It's not just about four walls and a roof, especially for people in Yellowknife who are accessing transitional housing programs," Christensen said.

She and Freeman argue housing, when done right, can help to address the effects of intergenerational trauma.

"The desire to live together communally with other people who are going through similar experiences – the desire to maybe live in a transitional housing or supportive housing environment, longer-term – is quite strong," Christensen said.

"There's something that comes from living with other people, supporting other people that have gone through similar things."

An increased role for the City

Over the past 10 years, Christensen said, the model of affordable housing most prominent in Yellowknife has been government-funded housing run by non-profits.

Instead, the City of Yellowknife can be a bigger player in providing housing, the researchers said. They suggest, for example, converting empty lots into housing in partnership with local Indigenous governments.

Freeman said there were signs of the City embracing that role through its plan to end homelessness, employment of a homelessness coordinator, and work with programs like Housing First.

She expects the resolution of the Akaitcho Process, which is said to be close to settling outstanding land claims in the Yellowknife area, to have a significant impact on what the City can achieve.

"Connecting the City and Indigenous governments is a really key part of working around issues of affordable housing, and really thinking about the land and whose land it is," Freeman said.

To get to any of these solutions, the researchers say there is a need for the City and NWT Housing Corporation to better coordinate their work.

In the meantime, non-profit organizations need to be given longer-term funding, they argued, so those groups do not have to spend time and resources applying for money year after year.

"It's about starting the conversation," Freeman said of the poster, which began reaching mailboxes on August 1.

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