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'We're really in dire need': MLAs press minister on N.W.T.'s housing woes

Thursday was a 'theme day' at the N.W.T. legislature, with members’ questions focused on housing, and with the minister responsible for the territory's housing corporation in the hot seat.

Housing was the focus of a 'theme day' at the Legislative Assembly Thursday

Questions in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Thursday focused on housing, putting Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation, in the hot seat. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

If there's one thing most, if not all, MLAs in the Northwest Territories can agree on, it's housing, and specifically, that the territory needs more of it — desperately.

Thursday was a "theme day" in the legislature, with members' questions focused on housing, and with the minister responsible for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation in the hot seat.

MLAs asked what the government is doing to address homelessness, overcrowding and the lack of decent and affordable homes across the territory.

The mountain of housing issues seemed almost insurmountable at points, like when Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland reminded the assembly that the N.W.T. housing corporation had told them that "the solution to our northern housing problem is half a billion dollars, or partnerships, and preferably both."

To put $0.5 billion in perspective, it's a little less than a quarter of the territory's total proposed budget for 2022-23.

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said housing is the biggest issue in his riding, and especially in Paulatuk.

"We're really in dire need over there," he said.

Jacobson said the hamlet has just 81 homes for 298 people, and 23 of them are "not adequate, affordable, [or] suitable for people to live in." 

He said 29 people in the community are on a wait list for a home, which is "unacceptable." 

Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for the N.W.T. housing corporation, said Paulatuk is getting four housing units. She acknowledged that "doesn't address the housing wait list, as he had mentioned, of 29."

'I'm just trying to hold people accountable'

Jacobson pressed the minister on $60 million from the National Housing Co-Investment Fund given to the territory in recent years. He said $34.5 million of that went to Indigenous governments, and asked how to ensure that money gets put to use soon. 

"We have to hold our local, Indigenous governments accountable. I'm Indigenous and we need houses in our communities. We need them sooner than later," he said.

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said Paulatuk, N.W.T., has just 81 homes for 298 people, and 23 of them are 'not adequate, affordable, [or] suitable for people to live in.' (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Chinna said the N.W.T. government got $25.5 million through the co-investment fund, which is being spent on 60 units across the territory. She said she has no part in money going to Indigenous governments.

"As a housing minister and part of the territorial government, I would not hold the Indigenous governments accountable in that way," she said.

Premier Caroline Cochrane chimed in with a point of order, saying it was inappropriate for an MLA to ask a minister to be accountable for federal money given to an Indigenous government. 

Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, acting as Speaker, said that there was no point of order, and that the minister could take the question.

"We're just short houses in the communities, and money has been given," said Jacobson, picking up where he left off.

"We can't give lip service no more. We need a timeline," he said. "I'm just trying to hold people accountable. It's our job." 

Home prices in Yellowknife hit 'all-time high,' says MLA

MLAs from Yellowknife pushed for more affordable housing in the territory's capital. 

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said pandemic-related supply chain disruptions have jacked up construction and maintenance costs, pushing home prices to "unaffordable levels." 

In 2021, she said, the average home price in Yellowknife reached nearly $486,000, "an all-time high." 

"The terrible state of our housing market means that, for far too long residents, and in particular Indigenous residents, have had to choose between a roof over their heads or feeding families," she said.

A man walks past Northview's Norseman Apartments in Yellowknife. Chinna said she would like to see the leases with Northview Canadian High Yield Residential Fund cancelled. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Minister says she wants Northview leases cancelled

There was also talk of the housing corporation transferring leases out of buildings owned by Northview Canadian High Yield Residential Fund, a real estate investment company that dominates Yellowknife's rental apartment market, and owns some of the most run-down buildings in the city. 

"I would like to see the leases with Northview cancelled," said Chinna.

She said she's asked the housing corporation what it would cost to replace their 164-odd Northview leases with new apartments, but hasn't gotten an answer yet.

To Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, the best solution is simply to build more public housing units. He asked if there was any plan to build more public housing in Yellowknife to help cut down the city's wait list, which he said is in the hundreds.

Chinna said the housing corporation is focused on smaller communities right now, and that there are no new buildings planned for Yellowknife.

Still, Chinna maintained that there's an "unprecedented level of new housing delivery currently underway" in the N.W.T., thanks in part to financial help from the federal government.

"To date we're going to be seeing a 90-unit delivery through the Northwest Territories," she said. "I know this is not going to solve the issue, but it's a great start."

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