North·NWT Votes 2019

On housing, local authorities bemoan territory's 'paternalistic' policies

Conversations about housing are taking on a new urgency as local authorities, contractors, and residents push for changes to “paternalistic, colonial” policies in the public housing system.

Local authorities, contractors point finger at the N.W.T. Housing Corporation for granting ‘limited control’

Keasha Green in Paulatuk has been sharing a home with six people while she waits for public housing. Her sister has been waiting for five years. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Keasha Green has been waiting for a home of her own for almost two years.

She lives in Paulatuk, N.W.T., where more than half of residents live in public housing.

She and her family — her partner and two children under two years old — used to share her parents' house with 10 others. Then, that house needed repairs, and she had to find another home for her family.

She's now sharing her sister's "one-person" house with six people. The unit has mould, and her child's health has been affected. But her sister has been on a waiting list for five years already.

"It's very stressful," she said. "You get depressed."

"It makes me feel sad for my kids, that they don't have their own place to stay."

Green's story is not unusual in the territory, where the N.W.T. Housing Corporation oversees 2,400 public units in 33 communities. In some places, like Paulatuk, those units make up the majority of the housing stock.

But conversations about housing are taking on a new urgency as local authorities, contractors, and residents push for changes to "paternalistic, colonial" policies in the public housing system during territorial and federal campaigns.

"People across the North are facing the same crisis," said Jason Snaggs, chief executive officer for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. "The enormity of it is so great that, in my opinion, we need the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for housing, particularly within Indigenous communities, and in the North."

Jason Snaggs, CEO of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, called the territory's housing policies 'paternalistic [and] colonial.' (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Relationship with housing corp. 'difficult'

Part of Snaggs's work is overseeing the local housing authority in Detah and Ndilo, where more than 70 per cent of houses are publicly-owned.

"It's a very difficult relationship," he said. "We have limited control."

Snaggs said eligibility rules mean residents are asked to pay expensive market rates when their salary increases by as little as $50.

Even residents who aren't on restricted incomes have no options when it comes to housing. Government policies make it impossible to secure a mortgage to build on Yellowknives Dene land.

That means aging housing stock is left to decay.

"If you come to Ndilo and Detah you will see … houses that are derelict, abandoned," he said. "There needs to be changes."

If you come to Ndilo and Detah you will see … houses that are derelict, abandoned.- Jason Snaggs, CEO of Yellowknives Dene First Nation- Jason Snaggs, CEO of Yellowknives Dene First Nation

Derelict houses are a sign of core housing need, a term used by housing authorities to measure the number of households either too expensive for their residents or otherwise inadequate — in need of major repairs, for example, or overly crowded.

According to a 2014 survey, just under one in five households in the territory fit this definition. But in some communities, it's far worse.

In Wrigley, more than half of households surveyed in the 2016 census fit this description, with more than 40 per cent needing major repairs.

In Behchoko, one in five houses were crowded. In K'atl'odeeche First Nation, almost a third were unaffordable, meaning residents spent more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.

But even those numbers may underestimate the scale of the problem. In a different community survey, produced for the housing authority in 2017, more than half of respondents said housing conditions had gotten worse.

The duplex in Fort Good Hope where crews are currently staying. The house was built as public housing. (Submitted by Heather Bourassa)

'The most expensive nine-plex in the N.W.T.'

Even where the territory is trying to tackle the problem of limited and degrading housing, its approach to contracting is raising serious questions.

In 2015, the housing corp. began construction on a new housing complex in Fort Good Hope, which a representative told the community would be "the most expensive nine-plex in the N.W.T."

According to Heather Bourassa, a local contractor, the contract was awarded to Tee Jay Contracting, a Fort Good Hope-based company owned by territorial candidate and former Sahtu grand chief Wilfred McNeely, Jr.

"The project has been on again, off again," said Bourassa. For a while, it stalled — materials degraded and had to be replaced, and paint froze.

"It was just a bit of a gong show," she said.

Recently, Bourassa said, the work on the nine-plex was taken over by Energy Wall, a Yellowknife-based contractor.

The crew, flown in to work on the job, was given a public housing unit to stay in.

As of 2016, 57 households in Fort Good Hope were living in inadequate or unsuitable conditions. The housing corporation's 2017 survey said nine applicants were on a waitlist for housing.

In an open letter to Tom Williams, the president of the N.W.T. Housing Corporation, Bourassa's brother, Robert, said "the use of government accommodations is prohibited" to contractors.

"There is a housing shortage," the letter concludes. "[We] can't see any justification for putting a contractor in front of the people of Fort Good Hope."

Tom Williams and the N.W.T. Housing Corporation declined an interview for this piece, citing the ongoing election.

Four fourplexes like this one, photographed in March 2019, were restored in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. in the past year by private investors. (John Last/CBC)

18th Assembly invested less in housing

Though increasing access to affordable housing was in the mandate of the 18th Assembly, the last government actually significantly decreased its contribution to the housing corporation — by almost 18 per cent from 2015 levels.

The federal government, by contrast, is contributing virtually the same amount now as in 2015, and actually boosted its contribution significantly in the intervening years.

The feds also signed an almost $140-million, 10-year agreement last year to provide "long-term and predictable funding."

Despite those boosts, the housing corp. still projects a nearly $5-million deficit by 2020 — a year in which the territorial government plans to drop its contribution by nearly $6 million.

On the ground, the territory's decreased investment has had real consequences.

"We don't seem to build houses here anymore with government funding," said Sean Whelly, mayor of Fort Simpson. "I'd say that the private market has done more to alleviate the strains here than the government has in the last five years or so."

Whelly said private companies recently renovated about 20 units in town using funding from a discontinued housing program.

The housing corp. also contributed a few modular houses that "looked like places designed for the High Arctic," he said, "almost like leftovers from other failed projects."

Fort Simpson has had a strained relationship with the N.W.T. housing corporation since July, when it fired the local housing board and appointed a replacement.

At the time, the outgoing director said local boards were no more than "window dressing" to give the appearance of local control. 

Whelly said the incident was "unfortunate" and a "distraction," but echoed complaints about the corporation's relationship with communities.

"I don't think there's a lot of consultation as to what kind of housing a community wants," he said. "There's always … dog-and-pony shows going around, or whatever, but in the end they just do what they want."

Alfred Moses, the housing minister, declined an interview for this story.

The Fort Simpson Housing Authority's relationship with the territory's housing corporation has been strained since July, when the local board was fired and replaced by an appointed director. (John Last/CBC)

'Move away from the colonial past'

Since its survey in 2017, the territory has done some things to make it easier for residents to take advantage of housing programs. It eliminated co-payments for several repair and maintenance programs, and committed to providing customer service training to all staff.

In some areas, it also committed to develop new housing policies in consultation with local governments.

In April, for the first time in a decade, the housing corporation hosted a Northern Housing Summit, bringing together bureaucrats, experts, and leadership from across Canada.

One of the speakers was Shelagh McCartney, director of Ryerson University's Together Design Lab, which is working with Yellowknives Dene First Nation to develop a locally-designed housing plan.

She said communities in the N.W.T. lack large parts of the "housing continuum" — a spectrum of supported and unsupported housing that ranges from homeless shelters to transitional homes, to market housing.

McCartney said committing to long-term, stable funding and allowing communities to dictate their demands is key to community wellness.

"I know politicians might not like that advice," she said, "but when we think about wellness, and allowing people to see their future, and plan for that future … longer term funding is something that would work very well."

Snaggs, the CEO of Yellowknives Dene First Nation, agrees.

"They also need to realize it's not about bricks and mortar, and wood," he said.

Other government departments should get involved in developing financial literacy, helping communities with planning, and making sure housing is "holistic," he suggested.

"They have to move away from the colonial past of the policies which do not help people," he said. "As a matter of fact, they put them down."

He's seen some movement from the territorial government. In a letter he received earlier this year, Moses and Tom Williams, the housing corporation president, committed to provide $110,000 in funding for an $800,000 community plan, he said.

But they haven't seen the money yet.


John Last


John Last is a freelance reporter and producer currently based in Padua, Italy. For the past four years, he covered Northern Canada and the Arctic for CBC North. His reporting work has taken him through Europe, the Middle East, and the American South.

With files from Alex Brockman


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