North

N.W.T. MLAs vote to review housing corporation policies to meet social needs

MLAs passed a motion Wednesday to review the housing corporation's mandate to ensure it is supporting the well-being of residents and reflects an understanding of housing as a "public good."

Housing corp. mandate doesn't reflect housing as determinant of health, MLAs say

Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Kam Lake, tabled the motion, saying the corporation does not 'benefit our residents to its fullest potential.' (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

N.W.T. MLAs advanced a motion Wednesday that would review the N.W.T. Housing Corporation's mandate to ensure it reflects the idea of housing as a public good and a factor in residents' health.

"Housing is a human right," said Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, as she tabled the motion.

"Housing is a social determinant of health, and it must be treated as such by this government," she said. "Until the housing corporation incorporates and acknowledges the relationship between housing and health and wellbeing into its policies and practices, [it] will not benefit our residents to its fullest potential."

The motion calls on the territorial government to review housing corporation policies during its government renewal initiative and to update its mission statement and policies.

It also directs the housing corporation to refer tenants to appropriate government services before they can be evicted. 

The motion carried today, with all regular MLAs voting in favour and all cabinet members abstaining, as is their protocol.

"The N.W.T. Housing Corporation mission statement is focused on housing stock, but is silent on the social program outcomes," Cleveland said. 

In the N.W.T., 42 percent of dwellings had at least one major problem, an increase of 10 per cent since 2009, she noted. 

Cleveland raised the issue of integrated case management earlier in the session, and said many residents fall through the cracks because they are turned away without being referred to an appropriate government service. 

"The administration of housing affects every single community in the territory," she said. 

MLAs support calls for housing reform

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn said unsettled land claims are another barrier to increasing housing stock. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn said the housing issues in the N.W.T. are "heart wrenching."

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation, for example, has been seeking to create its own home ownership opportunities for its members for years.

"YKDFN are looking to assume control of their entire housing system.… However, in order to support the re-delegation of control of housing, the [housing corp] will need to realign many of their policies to support this goal," said Norn.

There are other barriers, including the need for more funding from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. 

"Banks won't allow mortgages on reserves … because the land they sit on is not private property," he said. "This issue is also related to the unsettled Akaitcho land claim," which covers most of the eastern N.W.T.

Housing a priority, but where's the money?

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly said the territorial government has to bring its case for an increase to housing funding in the territory, and that during previous trips to Ottawa the territory was short-changed because it focused too much on infrastructure money. 

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said market housing is scarce in his communities.

"We have people living in makeshift shacks because they've been evicted," he said. "I think this is a step forward to get the housing situation under control."

Rocky Simpson asks for a shakeup

Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson suggested a cabinet shuffle if the minister is found to be responsible for what he called 'inaction' during a housing crisis. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson said the time for studies is over — the territory needs units on the ground. 

"At the end of the day we need more units," he said, whether that comes from the federal government or through fixes to the Hay River highrise, which was damaged in a 2018 fire that displaced many residents

"To give people a chance at life, to give children a chance at life we have to stop the B.S. and get out there and make things happen," he said. 

"For people seeking public housing because there are no other options, it troubles me when I have to tell them there is no housing available, and that this government has no plans to substantially increase public housing units," he said. 

Simpson said that if the "inaction" during a "housing crisis" comes from the minister, he would like a cabinet shuffle. If it's the senior bureaucrats, he would like Premier Caroline Cochrane to take action at that level, he said. 

Cochrane headed the housing department herself for several years in the last assembly. She told Simpson she will "do what is necessary" to get more houses on the ground.

Residents in Inuvik waiting for residential housing

Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler said the unit types most in need are not being built. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler said she has been told new units will be configured to address the most urgent needs, but while old units are being condemned, new units are built for RCMP.

From last year until now, the waitlist showed the number of people waiting for a one-bedroom unit went from 80 to 57. For a two-bedroom unit it went from 90 to 18, and for a three-bedroom unit it went from 10 people down to two. One person is waiting for a four bedroom. 

While waitlists have gone down in Inuvik, no new units are being built for the most urgent needs, she said.

Housing Minister Paulie Chinna said she is working with the federal government and that she is "confident" a federal announcement that will put houses on the ground is forthcoming. 

Lands makes lease transfers 'difficult': Yellowknife MLA

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said the housing corporation's budget of $118 million is underfunded and that the government's spending on other departments is "out of whack."

Johnson suggested a "lack of political will" has left the housing corporation underfunded, resulting in an inadequate stock of housing. 

Johnson encouraged the use of fee-simple tenure which would make it easier for people to own their own homes.

He questioned why the Lands Department makes it "difficult" for the housing corporation to have leases transferred to them.

In 2014, the territorial government signed an agreement with the housing corporation to transfer 838 lots in fee simple title for one dollar. It has transferred 16 since. 

Minister of Lands Shane Thompson said his department is working on the transfer of 179 units, but to do that they have to adequately consult with Indigenous governments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avery Zingel

Reporter

Avery Zingel is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political Science. Email her at avery.zingel@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @averyzingel.

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