An apartment building in uptown Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
“Not a penny” of a $60 million housing fund for the NWT has so far been spent, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson told the legislature last week. So what’s going on with all of that money?
Exactly what’s happening is harder to figure out than it should be, but there is definitely housing money from the same overall fund being spent in the Northwest Territories.
Simpson was talking about the National Housing Co-investment Fund (you might have seen his remarks reported by the CBC). It’s a federal fund meant to help build or repair affordable housing. It’s called the NHCF for short.
But the co-investment part is important: you need another level of government, like the GNWT, to come on board as a co-investor for your housing project to qualify.
Across the whole of Canada, the NHCF has $13.2 billion to give out.
Out of that total, $60 million – the same $60 million Rocky Simpson was talking about – has been “carved off” for the NWT. That means only projects in the Northwest Territories can bid for that $60 million. We’ll call that “the NWT carve-off” in this article.
So why hasn’t any of the NWT carve-off been spent?
One answer seems to be that even though the NWT carve-off exists, applicants from the territory are being given money from the broader NHCF $13.2-billion pot.
Some applicants are getting money, just not from the NWT-specific section of the fund.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation – the federal agency that runs the NHCF – says more than $42 million has been given to Northwest Territories applicants, helping to build or repair 152 units.
For example, Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland said a retrofit application submitted by the Borealis Housing Cooperative was approved for money, but got that money from the main NHCF fund and not the NWT carve-off.
The Avens Pavilion project in Yellowknife was just given more than $33 million from the NHCF but, again, that money came from the main pot, not the NWT carve-off.
Another two NHCF applications from groups in the NWT are currently under review.
Where did the $60M come from?
The NWT’s $60-million carve-off comes from an agreement then-housing minister Alfred Moses signed in February 2019.
Because the NHCF is application-based funding – you have to go and ask for it – the territorial government negotiated with Ottawa to reserve $60 million solely for applicants from the NWT.
“This $60 million is ours and ours alone. We will not have to compete with other jurisdictions or entities that have greater access to resources and a greater competitive advantage,” said Moses in a February 2019 statement.
It’s important to note the $60-million NWT fund is currently administered by the federal government. It is not cash that’s been sitting in the GNWT’s bank account for the past year and a half.
The NWT’s special agreement does one more thing aside from reserving $60 million. The agreement allows the federal government to contribute up to 75 percent of the funding for each project – whether or not the money comes from the main NHCF pot or the NWT carve-off.
Moses said southern provinces, by comparison, would only get up to 40 percent from Ottawa.
Why haven’t NWT applicants accessed the $60M carve-off?
This is the key question. There are definitely NWT-based applicants for NHCF cash, and there is definitely money from the main NHCF pot being spent in the territory, but apparently none of the $60 million designated specifically for the NWT has been touched.
We asked the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the NWT’s housing minister, and even some of the applicants to explain why the NWT’s special $60 million wasn’t being used.
Not only did they all struggle to provide a clear answer, but there was confusion about who actually decides whether money comes from the main NHCF pot or the NWT carve-off.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (known as the CMHC) said “productive discussions are ongoing on how to utilize this dedicated funding.” According to the CMHC, applicants and the NWT Housing Corporation – which is usually the co-investor on an application – have to decide if they want to apply for the main NHCF pot or the NWT carve-off.
The CMHC said so far, no organizations have chosen to take the carve-off route.
But the NWT’s housing minister, Paulie Chinna, said the NWT Housing Corporation’s role is to support applicants and not decide which stream to apply for.
“We don’t have the final say,” Chinna told Cabin Radio.
Daryl Dolynny, executive director of Avens in Yellowknife, said he thought his organization was applying for the NWT carve-off when it requested money for the Avens Pavilion project.
Instead, it turned out Avens would get the money from the national pot.
“I don’t believe the power is with applicant. I think it’s being decided at a higher level,” Dolynny said.
He said the application process was so complex that he can’t begin to identify when the Avens application began being considered under the national stream. (The application you fill out for the two streams appears to be the same, as does the processing time.)
Good news for the NWT?
Though we spoke to both the CMHC and the NWT’s housing minister, it remains unclear what – if any – pros or cons exist when applying to either the national pot or the NWT carve-off.
Neither the federal nor territorial governments could explain in clear terms why nobody had apparently yet applied for the carve-off.
Applying for the $60 million carve-off is, in theory, easier.
As Moses said, the whole point of the carve-off is there is less competition. Only NWT applicants can bid for that money. Yet NWT applicants appear to be applying for the national stream instead – and often getting money.
That may turn out to be beneficial for the territory.
If Northwest Territories applicants keep taking money from the national pot before the NWT’s $60 million is even touched, then that means much more than $60 million will end up being spent on territorial housing. (It’s not at all clear that the NWT has taken this approach by design.)
By contrast, if the NWT used up its $60 million first, it would end up applying on national funding much later in the process, when more of the overall $13.2 billion would be depleted.
As of June 30, 2020, $2.7 billion of the $13.2 billion had been allocated across the country. The money – around two-thirds in the form of loans, the rest in contributions – was paying for 11,400 new units and repairs to around 61,000 units nationwide.
New employee will help applicants
The NWT government says it is hiring an employee to help more projects in the territory get funding from the NHCF.
Minister Chinna said the new position, a community relations advisor, would be “a champion of the co-investment fund, to make sure that we do have commitments by the end of this government – that this funding is exhausted and it is spent.”
She was responding to Kam Lake MLA Cleveland, who told the legislature housing providers were often too busy providing front-line services to “meet the administrative burdens” of the NHCF application process.
“It will be this government’s failure if the Northwest Territories misses out on the opportunities this funding presents to address our long housing crisis, and that would be a northern travesty,” Cleveland said.
At Avens, Dolynny – who has now gone through the application process – said he would strongly encourage the territorial government to work with applicants and help them navigate the system.
Dolynny said Avens brought in a project manager specifically to work on its application.
“I’m not going to downplay how much work it is,” he said. “I would assume small hamlets and agencies would have a very difficult time navigating the process.
“If we had more assistance or help with it, it would have been a much easier process.”
There has already been one well-publicized instance this year of the NHCF application process defeating an NWT applicant.
The Yellowknife Women’s Society said its application for $4 million – to turn the city’s Arnica Inn into transitional housing – collapsed in part because the NWT Housing Corporation reportedly didn’t agree to co-invest $660,000 in time. (The project later went ahead.)
Chnna hopes to see the new position filled before Christmas, she said.
She added federal and territorial officials had toured the territory over the summer, trying to build awareness of the NHCF funding among Indigenous and community governments.
However, on Monday, the CBC reported some Indigenous governments were surprised this month to learn the carve-off existed.
“I am committed to working a lot stronger, a lot harder, getting the message out,” Chinna said.
“I need NGOs to come forward. I need Indigenous groups to come and work with us. It’s $60 million that has to be spent.”
The minister said the territory is lobbying Ottawa for the right to administer $10 million of the $60-million carve-off, then report back to the federal government, rather than have the federal government hand out the money.
No Rapid Housing Initiative money yet
MLAs last week also questioned Chinna on the federal goverment’s new Rapid Housing Initiative, announced in late September.
A separate $1 billion project, the initiative is designed to fund the rapid construction of affordable housing.
On Tuesday last week, the Trudeau government said $500 million would be “immediately” given to 15 cities, reported Global News. No territorial municipalities are on that list.
Another $500 million is available for the rest of Canada.
All of the money is expected to be committed by March 31, 2021, and housing is supposed to be available within 12 months of agreements being signed.
“We have very little information right now, but the staff are making themselves available and more familiar with the program as it is being developed,” said Chinna when asked if the GNWT was negotiating for a portion of the new funding.