Housing

Figures show astonishing scale of escalating NWT housing crisis

Nearly half of the NWT's homes are unsuitable, inadequate, or unaffordable, new figures from the NWT Bureau of Statistics show.

In the past decade, the number of homes with at least one of the three problems rose from 32 percent to 42.7 percent, a report on key housing health indicators published last week states.

Suitability refers to the right number of bedrooms for people in a home, while adequacy refers to homes that have running water and don't need major repairs. Both are significant problems across the territory's smaller communities, the report shows.

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Affordability – a home is considered affordable if less than 30 percent of household income is spent on housing costs – is a critical issue in both Yellowknife and Hay River.

In communities like the Kátł’odeeche First Nation (KFN) and Colville Lake, more than four out of five homes have major issues, the report states.

I don’t know what to do, my people are suffering.

CHIEF APRIL MARTEL TO PREMIER CAROLINE COCHRANE

In response, leaders in those communities called on the NWT Housing Corporation to do more – or get out.

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Almost half of homes in the Tłıch̨ǫ region, which includes Behchokǫ̀, Gamètì, Wekweètì, and Whatì, were deemed inadequate in the latest data. While the Yellowknife area had the lowest number of inadequate homes, at 11 percent, that number had doubled since 2009.

Suitability issues were also most prominent in the Tłıch̨ǫ region – with 33.5 percent of homes identified as unsuitable – and lowest in the South Slave, at 5.6 percent.

Even NWT communities with the fewest issues are probably facing a situation worse than Canada's national average. In 2018, Statistics Canada (using a related but not identical methodology) found 7.1 percent of houses nationally were inadequate and 5.1 percent unsuitable.

Despite these numbers, Tom Williams – president and chief executive of the NWT Housing Corporation (NWTHC) – said last week the corporation had surpassed its goal of reducing core need in 250 households for each year of the 18th Legislative Assembly, from 2015 to 2019.

Williams said the economy is a factor in the increasing number of NWT homes facing problems, arguing people have less disposable income to make repairs.

“In other cases in small communities, they don't have the ability – either lack of contractors or not having a building material provider in their community – so a lot of these repairs are forgone,” he told Cabin Radio.

Helpful definitions for this article:

  • Inadequate housing either doesn't have running water or needs major repair
  • Unsuitable housing doesn't have enough rooms for all the people living there
  • Unaffordable homes cost more than 30 percent of household income to live in

Moving forward, the housing corporation plans to tackle the evolving crisis by improving education for homeowners: teaching things like the importance of preventative maintenance.

Cabin Radio is choosing the report's publication to launch a new commitment to regular, in-depth reporting on the NWT's housing – and how governments are addressing communities' urgent needs.

'I told them all of the problems'

The newly reported data is striking in Colville Lake and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, where 83.9 percent and 71.4 percent of homes respectively are listed as inadequate for human habitation.

Remarkably, this actually represents an improvement for Colville Lake. In 2009, 97 percent of homes in the Sahtu community – all but one of its 35 houses – were deemed inadequate.

Ten years ago, a third of KFN homes were inadequate, meaning the community has suffered a significant degradation in the condition of its homes over the past decade.

A home in Gamètì sits boarded-up in June 2018

A home in Gamètì sits boarded-up in June 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

In both communities, more than a quarter of homes are also identified as unsuitable.

Chief April Martel of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation suspects some of the 38-point jump in the community's inadequate housing is down to past under-reporting of the true extent of the crisis.

Martel told Cabin Radio that when surveyors turned up this time, she went to every home with them, making sure everyone and everything was accounted for.

“I told them all of the problems,” she said, explaining housing is one of her priorities as chief.

“Currently on our reserve, a lot of our people are living in their own homes – but their homes are condemned, or don’t fit their needs, and they can’t get renovations,” said Martel, noting there is “major overcrowding” in the community.

Sixteen newly renovated homes for KFN

One bright spot for KFN is 16 newly renovated homes for members. The $1.2-million renovation project was fast-tracked following the Hay River highrise fire in March 2019.

Ten of the 16 homes will become public housing administered by the housing corporation, with people due to begin moving into the two-bedroom homes this week.

The remaining six homes were sold to KFN by the housing corporation for one dollar, Martel said, so the First Nation can run its own, parallel housing program. In August, the housing corporation said five of the units are to become residences while the sixth will be the local housing office.

Martel said a rent-to-own program for the five houses has received a huge number of applications, which are being reviewed this week. She hopes successful applicants will be able to move in almost immediately.

KFN’s tenants will pay $400 a month in rent, which will be held by the First Nation as money for a downpayment until the tenants have saved enough to buy the house from the First Nation. Money from the housing sales will be put toward building more homes.

“A lot of them are really excited that they get to own their own homes … they can’t wait,” Martel said.

“Last year, the children of Chief Sunrise [Education Centre, the local school] wrote a letter to chief and council saying what they wanted was to stop homelessness in the community,” she continued.

“So our mandate was that people get moved into homes right away, because the kids wanted us to get that done.”

No insurance, no repair money

However, Martel says the program cannot alone fix the community's housing problem, which she believes is tied to housing corporation policies.

For example, Martel feels the First Nation is trapped when it comes to fixing homes in need of major repairs.

Earlier this year, she said, she helped just under 30 members apply for funding from the housing corporation to renovate their homes. All were denied.

“The housing corporation told them they were not eligible because they didn’t have insurance,” said Martel, adding companies won’t insure local homes because there is no suitable fire hall, nor fire hydrants – things that would cost the First Nation millions of dollars to install.

We seriously need housing in the community and if they are going to stick to their policies then we will deal with it ourselves.

JOSEPH KOCHON, COLVILLE LAKE BAND MANAGER

Martel believes that even if adequate access to fire services existed, some homes would still not be eligible for insurance because they are in such a state of disrepair.

Martel claims the housing corporation changed its policy to require home insurance without consulting the First Nation. The housing corporation says requiring insurance is an important clause to ensure assets are protected.

If people move into KFN's new homes but then can't afford renovations or access programs, Martel fears those homes, too, will soon become inadequate and another problem, not a solution.

Martel says she told Premier Caroline Cochrane at a meeting last week: "I don’t know what to do, my people are suffering."

In response, housing corporation president Williams said his organization recognizes it is difficult, or cost prohibitive, to get insurance in some NWT communities.

Williams said the housing corporation had reached out to financial institutions and the federal Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation for help to ensure residents can access reasonable insurance rates.

“And again, it’s the education piece,” Williams said. “Just so people understand that all you need is one loss. And if you don’t have insurance, it’s a big, big bill to pay.”

Williams noted people may not qualify for assistance if they have land tax arrears or arrears with their local housing authority.

Concern about the next generation

In Colville Lake, band manager Joseph Kochon had the same answer as Martel when asked about his community's extreme housing need. He said the housing corporation's policies "don't work" there.

“It’s been an ongoing problem since the NWT Housing Corporation has existed in Colville Lake,” said Kochon.

“Over the years, we’ve reached out to them, saying we want to sit down with them and the community and find some solutions.

“We seriously need housing in the community and if they are going to stick to their policies then we will deal with it ourselves.”

In the past, Kochon said, the community was allocated a certain number of houses a year. Now, he said, there is no allocation at all – despite the high need.

The NWT community of Colville Lake has been powered by a hybrid solar and diesel system for several years

Colville Lake. Pat Kane/Pat Kane Photo

Kochon worries a lot of young people in Colville Lake will be looking for homes soon, but none are being built.

“Places are overcrowded and its good when the young people start off right away, and not under somebody’s roof,” he said.

“No one is sitting down with the community or leadership – they only come to collect rent,” he alleged.

This sentiment was echoed by Martel, who said when members each received $30,000 in “cows and plows" settlement money this summer, members who hadn’t been paying rent to the housing corporation were sent huge bills of up to $100,000.

Kochon questioned why Colville Lake had not, to his knowledge, seen any of the nearly $140 million in federal and territorial funding for housing announced last year.

“We’re tired of repeating ourselves so we might as well tell [the NWT Housing Corporation] to pack their bags and drag their rental houses out,” he said.

Community plans coming up

But the NWT Housing Corporation insists it is working with communities – and points to the development of community housing plans as an example. The plans are designed to help staff in each community who have responsibility for housing, by providing specific information about the needs of communities and residents.

The corporation says the plans will provide a "comprehensive map to better direct housing investment in the community."

“The days have changed in how we deliver programs,” said Williams. “In past practice, governments used to dictate what the communities got in terms of capital investments.

"Now … it’s driven by the communities themselves saying what their housing needs are, both current needs and future needs.”

Unsurprisingly, the housing corporation says every community has different needs. Some need more housing for seniors, and many say they need housing for single people. The solutions vary from community to community.

The housing corporation's goal is to have all 33 community plans completed within the next two years. Williams said 12 to 15 plans are currently in various stages of development.

“It’s not only us," he said. "We have to look at partners. There are other players that could come up to assist and provide a housing solution, both in the private sector and working in partnership with all levels of government.

“Everybody has a stake in housing.”

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