Extra costs associated with northern construction and Covid-19 could explain why new affordable housing projects in the Northwest Territories are costing millions.
The federal government recently announced two housing projects in the NWT totalling more than $20 million: $4.9 million to build eight homes in Tulita and $18.8 million to build 19 homes across the Yellowknives Dene First Nation communities of Ndilǫ and Dettah.
With a budget of more than $610,000 per home in Tulita, and $980,000 per home across Ndilǫ and Dettah, some residents are questioning why the price tag is so high.
“The North is not a place to do things cheaply,” said Wayne Guy, principal of Yellowknife-based architecture firm Guy Architects.
“Ultimately, the resources and expenses you put into maintaining your housing stock cannibalize new capital for new housing stock in a growing population. So, really, if you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Guy’s firm worked with the North Slave Métis Alliance on its application for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation funding through the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative. Like other NWT applicants to that initiative, the North Slave Métis Alliance did not get approved, seemingly because the territory had neglected to spend the existing $60 million “carve-out” set aside for the NWT from the National Housing Co-Investment Fund.
The Tulita and Yellowknives Dene projects draw from the $34.5 million portion of the $60 million total administered directly to Indigenous governments and organizations.
Guy was not involved with either the Tulita nor Yellowknives Dene applications. He spoke to Cabin Radio in general terms about how architecture firms like his estimate costs for northern housing projects.
The ‘Achilles heel of northern housing’
“What really is the Achilles heel of northern housing is it longevity,” he said. “If you have solutions that are not well considered from a durability standpoint, then the ongoing operational and maintenance costs associated with that housing becomes a huge liability for the community and the owners of that housing.”
Guy said governments typically build for a 20-to-30-year lifespan, which he called “ill considered.” Guy would like governments to fund housing that lasts at least half a century.
“The operational cost starts to become untenable,” he said. “Ultimately, the operational costs are what establishes the sustainability of the housing stock.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, Guy said, has also impacted building costs by disrupting the supply of raw materials like timber.
“Reliable cost for materials has been something that’s gone out the window,” he said. “I know certainly for our projects in Nunavut, they’re looking at a 30 percent uptick in project costing because of the supply line issues. It’s still a very volatile market.”
Other costs are project specific.
According to Guy, the biggest predictor of a project’s cost in the NWT is whether it is road accessible.
Tulita, located on the banks of the Mackenzie River in the territory’s Sahtu region, is accessible only by air, or by boat in the summertime.
Both Ndilǫ and Dettah are accessible by road but other factors could be affecting project costs.
The project plan calls for four homes each in two existing lots in Ndilǫ and Dettah. They will be designed around a “large central living space with varying bedroom sizes to support large or multi-generational family composition,” according to a Yellowknives Dene spokesperson.
The remaining 11 units will be apartments built into a portion of the Vital Abel building in Ndilǫ, currently operated by the Det’on Cho management company as a medical boarding facility. Four of those units will include “barrier-free” design considerations like roll-in bathtubs and lowered countertops to allow ageing in place for Elders with mobility needs.
The Yellowknives Dene will have to purchase the building from the Det’on Cho so the company can move its boarding facility to another location. The First Nation also accounted for possible cost overruns in its application.
“A significant contingency has been included to account for current unknowns around the extent of renovation required to convert the existing building into apartments,” the First Nation’s spokesperson said in an email.
NWT Liberal MP Michael McLeod said these housing projects are vital to Tulita, Ndilǫ and Dettah.
“It’s been years since Yellowknife Dene had houses built in their community, and it’s the same with Tulita,” he told Cabin Radio.
McLeod said NWT residents can expect more federal funding announcements before the week of June 14.