The NWT’s housing minister pledged support for a Yellowknife Women’s Society project transforming a hotel into housing – even as the society insisted the project lay dead at the territory’s hands.
MLAs rounded on housing minister Paulie Chinna at the legislature on Tuesday, criticizing the collapse of a plan to turn the Arnica Inn into transitional housing. The 42 units would have helped people move from homelessness to permanent homes.
Last week, the Yellowknife Women’s Society and the city’s mayor blamed the NWT Housing Corporation for the project’s failure to receive $4 million in federal funding.
The society said the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) – a federal agency that funds housing projects – had declined to issue the money as the territory’s housing corporation was “not supportive of the project.”
Tuesday marked the first time the NWT government has responded to that allegation.
Chinna told the legislature the housing corporation could, in fact, find the money to provide its share of support for the Arnica Inn’s transformation – but only if the CMHC committed itself to the project.
Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said this was precisely the problem.
“It became this chicken-and-egg thing where no one was willing to take the first step and say, yes, we will support this,” she said. “Continued hesitation on either side to step forward and commit has killed the project.”
While the society could technically reapply for federal funding – and Chinna urged it to do so – Denning said a purchase offer is due to the Arnica Inn’s owners by March 31. The 300-day turnaround time for CMHC applications, she said, was now simply too long to wait.
Denning said only the NWT government’s intervention, lobbying the CMHC to reconsider its decision, could now save the project.
Chinna repeatedly refused to commit herself to such an intervention under questioning from Rylund Johnson, the Yellowknife North MLA.
NWT in the back seat?
Denning said the CMHC had rejected the Arnica Inn application for three reasons.
First, she said, the CHMC ruled there was no co-investment as the NWT Housing Corporation had not expressed its support. (Some form of co-investment from another source is needed to unlock the federal cash. The housing corporation’s contribution would reportedly have been $660,000.)
Second, the CMHC and the society differed in how they calculated affordability. The society said it could charge occupants higher rent, taking advantage of comparatively high NWT income assistance payments, relative to the CMHC’s expected market rate.
Third, the CMHC said there was no way to guarantee income assistance payments would remain generous.
Johnson and Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green criticized what they termed a lack of communication between the NWT government and the CMHC over a key project for the city.
Green told the minister she would need to be “bossy” with the CMHC to ensure the territory got good value from its $60-million share of a national housing co-investment fund.
“It was touted as a great bonus to this territory to have the $60-million carve-out,” said Green on Tuesday.
“But if it turns out we are in the back seat here, I don’t think it will be as useful as we all hope it will be in creating new housing for vulnerable populations.”
Documents were shared, says women’s society
Minister Chinna said she had yet to see the society’s application to the CMHC, had not seen a feasibility report, and was not familiar with the age of the building.
Denning disputed these assertions, saying a range of documents – including feasibility and environmental assessments – were provided to the minister ahead of a January 22 meeting.
Cabin Radio has seen an email sent to Premier Caroline Cochrane in January that includes an attached feasibility study prepared by Ottawa-based Focus Consulting. On January 14, also by email, a special advisor to the premier offered to relay that assessment to Chinna’s office.
Denning said she was told by the CMHC that the federal agency had met NWT representatives to discuss the application before it was denied.
In the legislature, Chinna said the women’s society should submit another application – urging haste in order not to “lose out on their own initiative.”
The minister said the housing corporation would help the women’s society with its application but, she added, the society had to reach out to the housing corp.
This assertion mystified Denning when reached by Cabin Radio on Tuesday.
Denning said her society had been in touch with housing corporation staff throughout the application process. “We also reached out to the minister, asking for her to support the application,” Denning said.
“So I’m not sure when, exactly, we failed to reach out for support. And that support needed to happen before the application was denied.”
Chinna said no territorial funding is currently set aside for the Arnica Inn project and finding that money now might entail cuts to existing programs.
‘Wake up’ to emergency, says MLA
Jackson Lafferty, the MLA for Monfwi, said the project was very “close to the hearts” of people both in Yellowknife and his district.
Lafferty asked the minister what she was doing to “wake the housing corporation up to the human emergency” that homelessness represents.
Responding, the minister said the situation of homelessness in Yellowknife “has been addressed.” She pointed to investments in the Bailey House (a transitional housing centre for men), the YWCA’s transitional housing, and the downtown sobering centre, as well as rent supplements.
The Arnica Inn project was meant to house single people, the Yellowknife Women’s Society’s Monique Robitaille told city council in May last year, saying they often have the hardest time accessing other programs.
Occupants of the Arnica Inn’s units would have included people who are homeless, those suffering mental health and addictions issues, and women and Elders at risk of violence.