The NWT government plans to spend an extra $15 million over three years to help groups apply for a federal housing fund containing a mysteriously unspent $60 million.
The National Housing Co-investment Fund has $60 million reserved for NWT projects but none of that cash has yet been spent, MLAs heard last week.
Though some NWT projects are still receiving money from the broader national fund – more than $42 million so far – the NWT’s $60-million dedicated slice of that fund remains untouched.
Neither the NWT’s housing minister nor the federal government have been able to articulate exactly why none of the $60 million has been spent during a territory-wide housing crisis.
However, one issue holding back some applicants is the lack of a co-investor.
As the program is a co-investment fund, the federal government requires that applicants have another investor – typically the NWT government – prepared to cover 25 percent of the project’s cost.
As an example, this is where the problem lay when the Yellowknife Women’s Society failed to successfully apply for money from the fund for its Arnica Inn transformation project. The NWT Housing Corporation did not agree to put up 25 percent of the money required.
Now, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek says the GNWT will find an extra $5 million in each of the next three years so the housing corporation can commit to co-funding more projects.
Housing minister Paulie Chinna has said the housing corporation’s ordinary annual spend on the co-investment fund is around $1.2 million, meaning Wednesday’s commitment would more than quadruple the NWT’s co-investment budget.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said the announcement was “very significant.”
Both O’Reilly and Wawzonek said the funding, arrived at through discussions between all 19 MLAs, was an example of collaboration in a legislature that has seen more than its share of conflict in the past year.
Wawzonek said the money would go toward “investing in much-needed infrastructure.” The plan to find extra cash for housing will receive formal deliberation from MLAs in February and March.
Federal program ‘insulting,’ says minister
Regular MLAs and the public aren’t the only ones annoyed at the apparent lack of spending from the NWT’s share of the national fund.
Minister Chinna last week suggested applications were taking up to a year to be processed. Implying a delay at the federal end, Chinna told MLAs the fund was “frustrating” to work with.
“It’s an opportunity that’s out there, but it’s not an opportunity. One year to process an application is absolutely not acceptable,” she said.
The minister also said the recently announced federal Rapid Housing Initiative was being rolled out in a way that hampered the territory’s ability to submit well-planned applications.
The program is designed to quickly roll out money for affordable housing, but the federal government says it wants to commit all the funding by the end of March 2021 – a compressed timeline.
“We’re looking at this rapid rehousing and they gave us three months to go ahead and throw applications in. I look at it as an absolute insult,” Chinna said.
The housing corporation has asked the federal government to give it more control over some federal funding. It’s not clear how much progress has been made in those talks.
More municipal funding, too
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the finance minister said an extra $2.5 million will be given to municipal governments in 2021-22.
The cash is intended to reduce the gap between the funding municipalities say they need to operate and the money the territorial government has been providing.
Closing that funding gap, acknowledged by the GNWT for years, is a stated priority of Caroline Cochrane’s government. The additional $2.5 million is a new commitment and will speed up that process.
That money must also receive formal approval from MLAs in the spring.