Fort Smith is set to get a new single-occupancy duplex – but town councillors are critical of the design plans.
At a council meeting on June 15, senior administrative officer Cynthia White cautioned mayor and council the town could lose the new unit if they don’t approve a lot for the NWT Housing Corporation quickly enough.
“Any further delays could result in us losing this very important piece of housing in the community, because we’re not on the uptake quick enough,” said White at the end of the meeting, after councillors had aired their concerns about how “institutional” the initial design looked and where it was set to be located.
There is currently a request for proposals for a design team and manufacturer to deliver 34 housing units across the NWT. The housing corporation has committed to building affordable homes that are 25 percent above the national energy code in exchange for federal dollars to build them.
The NWT Housing Corporation is hoping to have the new unit in Fort Smith built at 119 Field Street by December 2021. The unit designs will be similar to the new eight-plex that opened in Yellowknife in June.
The bachelor-style units are a newer type of configuration for the housing corporation – and are highly needed in Fort Smith, where there were 34 single people on the waitlist for housing as of May 1.
“These houses are going to look like crap … they look very jail-like,” Councillor Kevin Campbell bluntly told staff from the NWT Housing Corporation who had called into the meeting to present their plans and answer council’s questions.
“They don’t really look like houses … the design is really not very palatable,” Councillor Chris Westwell said, while admitting getting into the aesthetics of the building was a “slippery slope.”
“This is certainly the most institutional unit I’ve seen presented so far,” he said, “and I just wondered if there were alternative designs?”
Councillor Mike Couvrette expressed concern the duplex’s “institutional” look would lower nearby property values.
Dan Korver, manager of design development at the housing corporation, tried to reassure councillors by saying the plans presented in council’s package involved only an “indicative design” that represented the housing corporation’s intent.
“It is a very simple unit,” Korver said, noting the duplex will be a modular building.
“They will be affordable, adequate, suitable housing designed to be energy efficient. The final aesthetic will be up to the design build team and the housing corporation.”
Korver added some aspects of the initial design – like the high foundation – might not be necessary in Fort Smith, unlike in other NWT communities farther north.
“I think they are being referred to as institutional when they could be characterized as contemporary or modern,” he said, explaining they were designed with affordable, low-maintenance finishes like corrugated metal siding in mind.
Mayor Lynn Napier said she had spoken with leaders of the Salt River First Nation, Smith’s Landing First Nation, and Fort Smith Métis Council about the proposed build, and they had all expressed similar sentiments.
“These are not welcoming homes for residents in our community,” she summarized, noting the current design only accounts for two windows in each unit, there is little space for seating, and the units wouldn’t be able to house people with mobility issues because they don’t “appear to be accessible in any manner.”
Westwell later said the building would be a “terrible example of how to build an inclusive community.”
Why Field Street?
Councillor Jessica Cox noted, “It’s important that [subsidized] housing be diversified throughout the community … and not grouped together en masse on a couple of streets.”
Cox said there are already a number of subsidized housing units on Field Street and the long-term plan is for the units to be integrated throughout the town.
Anita Lenoir, the housing corporation’s manager of land planning, said lots zoned for duplexes are difficult to find.
“We can only scatter subsidized housing if there are lots we can build on that are permitted uses … we’re limited and it’s challenging when there are subdivisions where we’re kind-of blocked from entering or not allowed to go,” Lenoir said.
White noted the housing corporation had sent a survey to local stakeholders on homelessness needs, but had neglected to include the town.
“I think that’s problematic for us. If we’re taking about doing any work around homelessness and housing needs in this community, it’s disappointing that I got this email from a third party … we weren’t included in this email.
“So when we talk about housing needs and studies and such things, I would anticipate that the Town of Fort Smith will be included from here on in.”
Napier said through the NWT Association of Communities, she often advocates for funding from the federal government.
“We know the housing is not a need that is served by municipalities, but we know that it is a need of our municipality and we do need to be included in these conversations,” she told the NWT Housing Corporation staff.
“In order to be partners we need to be included in these discussions.”
At the end of the meeting, town council decided they wanted the housing corporation to provide a more detailed presentation on subsidized housing in the community.