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Confusion nearly killed Arnica Inn plan, says project leader, but there's still hope

The plan to convert 42 units into homes for people in need could potentially end homelessness for women in Yellowknife, says the executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society.

'I'm not declaring the project dead,' says executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society

The plan to convert 42 units at the Arnica Inn into homes for people in need could potentially end homelessness for women in Yellowknife, said Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

A communication snafu may have nearly killed a plan to create transitional and affordable housing at Yellowknife's Arnica Inn, says the group leading the initiative, but there's still a fighting chance the project will go ahead.

"I'm not declaring the project dead," said Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, which is spearheading the project. "We're still trying to resuscitate it at this point."

The plan to convert 42 units at the inn into homes for people in need could potentially end homelessness for women in Yellowknife, said Denning. The project would house men as well.

The women's society applied for funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's (CMHC) co-investment program. Under that program, the crown corporation would have paid for about 75 per cent of the project if the territorial government kicked in the other 25 per cent.

The women's society had asked for $4 million from the CMHC, conditional upon a $660,000 contribution from the NWT Housing Corporation. Regular MLAs lauded the arrangement as "a great deal."

Much to the surprise of the women's society, its application was rejected on Feb. 14.

After a "positive" meeting with the minister responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation Thursday morning, Denning said she has a better understanding of what pushed the project to the brink of cancellation. 

Different stories

Denning said getting to the bottom of why the project was rejected by CMHC was complicated.

On one side was the women's society, which was told by the CMHC that its application for funding had been denied, in part because there wasn't buy-in from the NWT Housing Corporation. 

On another side was the NWT Housing Corporation and Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for it. Chinna said there were issues with the women's society's funding application, and that the housing corporation isn't in a position to accept or reject applications to the CMHC. 

On Wednesday, Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation, denied the assertion that the housing corporation wasn’t on board with the Arnica Inn project. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

In the middle was the CMHC, which told CBC it doesn't comment on specific applications, but that the women's society is welcome to reapply.

How long that reapplication process could take is unclear. Meanwhile, time to purchase the Arnica Inn is running out — the deadline is March 31.

But the situation changed somewhat Thursday morning. Now, said Denning, the plan is for the women's society and the housing corporation to approach the CMHC again, with the hope of kick-starting the application. 

Communication breakdown

One of the reasons the CMHC gave for rejecting the women's society's application was that it hadn't gotten the support of the housing corporation.

On Wednesday, Chinna denied the assertion that the housing corporation wasn't on board. "We do not withhold any 25 per cent of any co-investment funding that is available to residents and people of the Northwest Territories," she said.

After Thursday's meeting, Denning said her understanding of the housing corporation's position is that they shouldn't be expected to commit money before the CMHC does. She said the housing corporation was of the mind that, "this is a federal pot of funding so you [the CMHC] should make the decision about whether something is acceptable to you before you come to us [the housing corporation] for funding."  

There's a bit of a disagreement about how the application process should function.- Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society

The CMHC, however, was of the view that the territorial government should be a "co-applicant, essentially," before a proposal gets to the approval or denial stage, said Denning.

"So there's a bit of a disagreement about how the application process should function," she said. "That's my understanding, coming out of this meeting, as to why we ended up in this sort of situation where the CMHC was telling us that we weren't approved by the housing corp., and at the same time, the housing corp. was saying, 'No, that's not the case.'"

Further complicating matters, said Denning, was that the women's society's application to the CMHC co-investment program was the first from the Northwest Territories.

Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, says she had a 'positive' meeting on Thursday with the minister responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

"It's of course frustrating for me," said Denning, but now it's clearer to her why the situation was communicated differently by the CMHC and the housing corporation. 

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty on Thursday lamented the communication breakdown. 

"Back in November 2018 the government of Canada and the Northwest Territories signed a housing agreement and it was championed as this great opportunity," she said. "And one of the things that it committed to is about transparency and working together."

"We're not seeing that right now. There's that breakdown between [the NWT] Housing Corporation and CMHC." 

Despite the kerfuffle, Denning is pushing ahead.

"I will still attend whatever meetings I can, but yeah, it would take a lot to make [the project] go forward at this point," she said, adding, "I'm willing to put that in if it's going to achieve the goal." 

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