Fort Good Hope seeks local answers to housing crisis, hosts 3-day housing forum

As part of efforts to address the housing shortage, Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., is hosting a three-day housing forum this week, with a goal of developing a plan to tackle the issue.

'We have to find a way to solve this problem,' says Chief Wilfred McNeely Jr.

Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., is hosting a housing forum this week to come up with a strategy to address the housing shortage in the community. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Wilfred McNeely Jr. was first elected chief of Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., in 2011. On one of his first days on the job, an outgoing band councillor gave him a book with the issues he'd likely be dealing with as chief.

On page one was the dozen boarded-up homes in the community. 

For McNeely, unemployment, alcohol addiction, and family dysfunction in the community of 515 people can all be connected to this fact — there aren't enough places for people to live.

"Using one word to describe it? I'd say it's a crisis," McNeely said. "Drive around and see how run-down these houses are. If we could solve the housing problem, we could do something about the drinking in town."

As part of efforts to do that, the community started an independent housing society and is hosting a three-day housing forum this week, with the goal of developing a plan for tackling the issue.

"We have to figure out ways to solve this problem, using our own resources," McNeely said. "We've got to find a way."

The non-profit housing society is funded with $500,000 from the Yamoga Land Corporation, the organization set up to manage funds from the Sahtu Dene and Métis Land Claim Settlement signed in 1993.

This push for housing-first in Fort Good Hope comes as the federal government pledged to end homelessness. Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $40-billion national housing strategy over the next decade. 

Though the federal government hasn't laid out how this ambitious plan will help places like Fort Good Hope, it earmarked $36 million in the 2017 federal budget for affordable housing in the Northwest Territories.

But with 33 communities in the N.W.T. sharing that funding, this money isn't enough to make a difference on its own, McNeely said.

The community plans to use money from its land claim to purchase abandoned homes from the territorial government, repair them and train residents to maintain them once they've moved in, McNeely said.

"It would make them feel they have something good, they have a place to raise up their family. A whole pile of good things can come from having a home," he said.  

It's a plan similar to a housing society that existed in Fort Good Hope in the 1970s. That project resulted in dozens of quality homes, many are still standing.

Renovating the homes would not only help the people moving in, but the steady work the projects bring could employ people who are out of work, spinning off the benefits, McNeely said.

Territorial government on board 

McNeely's vision is supported by Caroline Cochrane, the territory's housing minister, and Tom Williams, the president and CEO of the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation.

"It's time for communities to take control of their own housing," said Cochrane, who will be in Fort Good Hope Tuesday for the forum.

Though the housing corporation owns public housing in the territory, it's not equipped to repair and maintain all the units it owns, Cochrane said. The government already sold one unit to the society for $1 and the band is finalizing a deal for 10 more at that same price.  

The Salt River First Nation in Fort Smith, N.W.T., is doing something similar, Cochrane said. 

That community purchased and renovated two homes from the housing corporation. Cochrane said she toured the  buildings and is impressed with how it went.

"There's no way governments can deal with housing and homelessness alone," she said. "We need to work together with the communities on this."

Alex Brockman will be in Fort Good Hope this week during the housing forum sharing stories about the housing crisis and what people are doing about it.

Do you have a story about housing in your community? Email him at alex.brockman@cbc.ca