The NWT expects to build 90 new public housing units by 2024, but the numbers behind that figure leave some MLAs disappointed and frustrated.
Housing minister Paulie Chinna this week told the legislature an agreement to build units with federal support was signed in August and money began flowing in September. So far, four of the 90 are complete and 51 are in progress.
But where those homes are going, and how much money is being devoted to building more, remain contentious issues.
The NWT’s housing crisis is exemplified by the Beaufort Delta region, where 178 people are on a housing waiting list according to Chinna.
Of those people waiting for homes, 73 are in Inuvik. Of the 90 new units, Inuvik is said to be receiving two.
“For my community to get two units is hard to hear,” Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler told Chinna.
“When is this department going to get serious and go to Ottawa and get some money – more money – and get more houses on the ground in our territory, so we can start to deal with some of the issues that relate to not having homes?”
Chinna said 90 units represented the “largest delivery the Northwest Territories has had in a certain amount of years” and she would continue lobbying the federal government for more cash.
The minister said she hoped to able to take possession of old RCMP homes in Inuvik once new ones are completed, then either add them to housing corporation stock or offer them to Indigenous governments.
Semmler was not the only MLA unimpressed.
Told the four Tłıchǫ communities would receive 10 of the 90 units, newly elected Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong said: “Ten was not the number I was looking for.”
She said overcrowding in inadequate and deteriorating homes had pushed more than 200 Tłıchǫ residents onto the housing waiting list. In 2019, GNWT statistics suggested almost half of Tłıchǫ homes were rated inadequate.
Chinna said the NWT Housing Corporation is working with a Tłıchǫ housing working group and has had “federal engagements and applications” for funding in the region.
Housing spend ‘out of balance’
In all, Chinna said the 90 units on the way would mean the housing corporation completes more than 100 new units by the end of this government in 2023, hitting a target set out by MLAs in 2019.
But MLAs pointed to the size of waiting lists, and the amount of money the territory is spending on other priorities, and queried the territory’s commitment to solving its housing crisis.
They spoke as cabinet introduced a $500-million capital budget, the largest ever produced by an NWT government, for consideration. The capital budget governs spending on infrastructure like highways, power plants, schools – and homes.
The draft budget – MLAs will vote later to approve or reject it – includes $150 million for highways, winter roads, bridges and associated work. There is $84 million for work on airports, $47 million for health infrastructure like long-term care facilities and wellness centres, and $22 million for work on schools.
Of the $502 million in the budget, $216 million is covered by federal support.
Two MLAs, Yellowknife North’s Rylund Johnson and Frame Lake’s Kevin O’Reilly, contrasted some of the figures in the proposed budget with the $10.6 million the document sets aside for housing.
“$150 million in this budget alone is for roads. And this budget shows us spending $10.6 million on housing, when housing is a priority for this assembly. This is completely out of balance,” O’Reilly told finance minister Caroline Wawzonek on Wednesday.
“We’re spending 30 percent of our total capital budget on roads alone. We’re not just on the precipice of a fiscal cliff, we’re going over the cliff right now.
“I don’t sense that this government is doing anything to stop that. The money that we do have, we’re not even spending on the right priorities.”
Johnson said the territory was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure with, in his view, little apparent regard for the cost to operate and maintain that infrastructure in years to come.
“I don’t believe we have any sense of what this capital budget will cost us,” he said. “There is $47 million largely for long-term care facilities in this, but we know each bed costs over $100,000 a year to operate. We also know our health authority is running a massive deficit.
“Roads cost a lot of money to maintain, and our current roads aren’t being maintained properly.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling and here we are, building more. I don’t believe hard decisions have been made.”
Wawzonek, responding to MLAs’ criticisms, stressed that her government was effectively forced into many infrastructure decisions to ensure critical equipment is in place and vital programs and services can be offered.
Johnson, though, said the housing figure illustrated a government failing to act on its priorities.
“Proper thought and strategic direction was not put into this,” he said of the draft capital budget. “That is no more apparent than in the two percent of this budget that is going toward housing. It is a priority of this assembly and only two percent of this is to build new houses.”
Johnson said housing seemed to be the only aspect of infrastructure where the territory paused to consider the long-term operating costs before proceeding. In 2038, federal backing for most of the ongoing cost of providing public housing will stop, and the territory will have to pick up the bill.
“The only place [ongoing costs seem] to be even considered is in housing, and that’s why we won’t build any more housing,” said the Yellowknife North MLA.
“I am frustrated that once again I see $10.6 million, a somewhat made-up number, for housing, and I can’t get the housing corporation to build more housing.”
Some regular MLAs welcomed the prospect of investing half a billion dollars in infrastructure.
“I’m actually pleased to see a large infrastructure investment,” said the Great Slave MLA, Katrina Nokleby.
“When economies are bad, governments build infrastructure. It’s a way we can keep people in the NWT employed over the next while.”
But Nokleby, too, expressed concern at the territory’s progress toward solving its housing crisis.
“I don’t have a lot of optimism, sitting here two years in, about where we’re at with our housing,” she said.