Several MLAs spent Friday calling on the NWT government to better address the territory’s housing issues, ranging from a lack of affordable home insurance to teachers’ accommodation struggles.
Communities across the NWT lack suitable, affordable housing. Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation, acknowledged the cost of owning and maintaining a home remained out of reach for many residents.
Addressing the legislature on Friday, Chinna said the housing corporation was taking steps to change that.
She said those steps include plans to build at least three homes, implement a pilot program to help income-earning families make the transition from public housing to homeownership, and launch a lease-to-own program.
“Supporting homeownership is essential for addressing housing needs in the NWT,” Chinna said. “Homeownership is obviously not for everyone, but if we can do this in a way that supports the needs of our people, the benefits will be meaningful.”
After Chinna spoke, a succession of MLAs raised a range of issues contributing to the territory’s housing crisis.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly described Yellowknife constituents’ challenges acquiring home insurance. O’Reilly said even his own insurance was cancelled over the winter holiday, leaving only one option – with a 40-percent increase in premiums.
O’Reilly said Yellowknife Catholic Schools is facing premium increases of almost 600 percent over two years.
“As bad as it may be in Yellowknife, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for homeowners in small communities to obtain insurance,” he said.
O’Reilly believes a possible solution lies in a model similar to Saskatchewan Government Insurance, or SGI, a Crown corporation that offers home, farm, business, and auto insurance in five provinces.
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek, however, said the role of her department and the superintendent of insurance was to ensure regulations are followed and not to enter the private market, influence insurance costs, or create a Crown corporation.
“I don’t think it’s good enough for us to just say that there’s a problem,” O’Reilly responded.
“Clearly there’s been a failure of the private market. People can’t get insurance, can’t get affordable insurance. We’re just going to stand there and watch?”
Wawzonek said residents who can’t resolve issues with their insurance provider can complain to the office of the superintendent. She promised to look into O’Reilly’s suggestion and see if SGI would benefit the NWT.
An unjust policy?
Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos said one of the housing corporation’s policies, titled the core need income threshold, had become a “repetitive issue” for seniors in her district who apply for public housing.
Under the corporation’s policy, only households who have a problem related to housing affordability, suitability or adequacy – and whose housing costs total more than 30 percent of their income – can apply for housing assistance.
Martselos said that policy fails to take into account residents’ age or mobility challenges.
She described a Fort Smith couple in their eighties who have tried for years to move into a home more suited to their mobility, social, and safety needs. The core need income threshold’s requirements mean they cannot be considered for public housing.
“This is not an acceptable or just policy,” Martselos said. “There can be no discrimination against seniors, period.”
Martselos wants the territory to replace its “discriminatory policy” with a universal flat market rental rate for all seniors who apply for public housing, regardless of their income.
Chinna committed to reviewing the policy.
“We do hear a lot of concerns regarding the core need income threshold. We are taking a look at it,” she said.
However, the minister said seniors’ housing needs had to be balanced with those of families, single parents, people with addictions, and low income earners.
‘More houses for teachers’
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said some people in Paulatuk had waited more than a year for access to housing, adding he felt smaller communities were a “last priority” for the current territorial government.
“I keep sending letters into the minister,” Jacobson said. “No avail.”
Jacobson questioned whether an emergency housing unit in Paulatuk was available, having been told last year that the unit remained unfurnished.
“We have to have a unit for the community,” said Jacobson, describing the need for “an emergency house if something goes wrong, somebody’s house burns down.”
“It’s minus-40 or 50-below back home and it’s really needed,” he said.
Chinna said the housing corporation had set aside units across the territory in case of a Covid-19 outbreak. Given the seriousness of the pandemic, she said, it was important that those units be kept available, particularly in high Arctic communities. She pledged to follow up with her department.
Jacobson said communities in his district lacked housing for teachers and professionals. He said one teacher had been evicted and left scrambling for a place to live.
“We need more houses for teachers, for professionals, to draw them in,” said Jacobson.
“If you don’t have housing, you’re not going to draw the quality of people in because they’re worrying about stuff like that – and that’s one of the last things they should be worrying about.”
Chinna said the housing corporation had not evicted the teacher and had worked with them to provide options.