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Coronavirus
Housing

Is Covid-19 a chance to make homelessness a ‘one-time occurrence’?


Covid-19 has shown all levels of government can quickly develop and implement policies. In the NWT, that was apparent when liquor laws were changed to limit sales of alcohol. 

Penny Gurstein, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of community and regional planning, argues Canada can take advantage of the pandemic to make homelessness a “one-time occurrence” in history.

“The BC government has now moved all the people who are in these homeless camps into hotels,” Gurstein told Cabin Radio. “What’s going to happen after the worst of this? How can we actually use the kind of quick decision-making that’s being done to address homelessness in a way that would have some permanent solutions to it?”

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In Yellowknife, similar projects have been advanced during Covid-19: a former hotel is being converted into transitional housing, while the city’s sobering centre and day shelter ran a successful 30-day managed alcohol project. Another apartment block was converted into temporary housing for the city’s homeless. 

The NWT’s Member of Parliament, Michael McLeod, said emerging from the pandemic with an economic strategy for northerners – with employment driven by infrastructure work like housing projects – will be important. He says there are already commitments to build more housing as part of that.

“We’re really keen on getting housing construction under way once the restrictions are lifted,” said McLeod.

“We had a number of discussions with the federal government and the GNWT on this being their employment generator. 

“It’s an opportunity for us to move forward so we can see construction starting in communities [and] it’s an easier one than some of the bigger major projects we’re targeting.”

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‘We have to address needs in communities’

Gurstein said policies need to exist that ensure housing works for everyone, especially those in marginalized communities. She wants governments to look beyond the private market for housing solutions.

“It’s very uncertain what the real estate market is going to be, post-Covid 19,” said Gurstein.

“At least for the short term, we need to be thinking of other ways of addressing the housing system and not just the real estate market.”

McLeod said housing strategies for Indigenous communities need to be a top priority. Many NWT communities are working on housing plans with the NWT Housing Corporation while others, like the Yellowknives Dene, are developing strategies of their own.

McLeod added $60 million in federal cash has been earmarked for cooperative-style housing. He said that dollar figure was “the floor, not the ceiling.”

“Housing is a big issue in the Northwest Territories. In every community that I attend, every meeting that I’m at, once housing hits the discussion table, it doesn’t fall off,” he said.

“And if we’re going to deal with some of the challenges in housing in our regional centres, we have to address the housing needs in the communities at the same time.”

A spokesperson for the NWT Housing Corporation said applications from the territory for that $60-million fund are in various stages of the approval process.

“To date, there have been no funding allocations under this program for the NWT,” said the corporation. “The NWT Housing Corporation looks forward to seeing these active applications approved by the federal government in the near future to support the delivery of additional affordable housing units for the territory.”

Multi-unit ‘market grab’ a concern

In an interview with UBC News, her university’s own news outlet, Gurstein worried that REITs – real estate investment trusts – could try to acquire more multi-unit properties. She fears municipalities looking to make a quick dollar may sell properties to the private rental market, which she thinks is a mistake.

“It really was a major stimulus for the call to action,” said Gurstein, referring to a letter her housing research group sent to the federal government last month.

“It’s very concerning when governments [or] municipalities are talking about the need to sell off their land in order to keep their municipalities afloat. That is very concerning. That is the last thing [municipalities] should be doing, giving up lands that are in community control.”

As yet, there has been no suggestion of NWT municipalities taking such action. However, some municipalities farther south are in stormier financial waters.

Even so, some politicians in the Northwest Territories feel REITs are dominating local real estate – making it harder to solve homelessness.

Northview, one of the territory’s largest private landlords, holds a major share of the NWT’s rental market. In Yellowknife alone, Northview maintains more than 1,000 units.

In a February address at the legislature, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson referred to Northview as “monopolistic.”

“A dominant landlord reinvesting rent collected in the North into properties located in the south has a significant impact on the people living in a territory with one of the highest costs of living in the country,” Johnson said.

“In addition … the high cost of construction in the North limits the building of any new rentals. This means that a competitor emerging is not going to happen.”

Gurstein thinks REITs who control large numbers of homes can “do what they want to raise rents,” making it harder for some to hold down housing.

Instead, she wants more direct funding for Indigenous governments so they can “play a role and deliver the housing.”

The Dene Nation, among others, has been seeking exactly that kind of funding in recent months.

The pandemic hit just as the federal government was completing work on a budget to come out on March 30. That budget would have included more detail on whether such funding exists – and how much.

McLeod said the amount of money spent by the federal government on the pandemic makes him unsure whether Ottawa will have the money to transform housing when the budget is eventually finalized.

“I’m not sure when that’s going to happen and what it’s going to look like, now,” he said.

“As we start slowly talking about economic recovery. I’ve tried to make sure that housing is a priority, [that] housing is a way to get shovels in the ground.”

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