N.W.T. gov't to test lease-to-own arrangement with 10 public housing renters

Caroline Cochrane, minster responsible for housing the N.W.T., plans to introduce a pilot project this fall that would see 10 renters in public housing move into a lease-to-own agreement with the territory.

'Home ownership is the key,' says minister responsible for housing in the Northwest Territories

Though there's a public housing shortage in the N.W.T., in many communities old houses stand empty and boarded up. The government is hoping a new home ownership program will eventually make more money available to build new units and repair and maintain existing ones. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

The Northwest Territories government plans to move 10 families into a lease-to-own arrangement in their public housing units under a pilot project this year.

Housing Minister Caroline Cochrane said details of the program are being finalized, but expects it will be formally announced in the next sitting of the legislature this fall.

It means 10 families in public housing will enter into a lease-to-own agreement with the government on their public housing units, essentially becoming owners rather than tenants.

"I do not believe anybody really, truly, deep down wants to live off public services their whole life," Cochrane said. "I think everyone wants to — would ideally — like to have their own home."

The project flows out of a recently completed N.W.T. Housing Corporation survey.

"Every policy and every program is under the microscope," Cochrane said. "If the policies and the programs are working, they will stay in place. If they are not working, then they will be changed to help people obtain public housing, maintain their public housing, and retain or keep the public housing units."

Other plans include new two-floor housing units with a main floor suite to accommodate those who wish to have elder family members remain at home, and home maintenance training for public housing renters.

Housing challenges in the N.W.T.

Public housing in the N.W.T. is complicated. Most communities have no viable real estate market and it falls on the territorial government to take the lead in home construction.

The Northwest Territories Public Housing Corporation manages public housing in partnership with 24 local housing organizations based in the communities. Public housing includes social housing for individuals or families who cannot afford shelter on their own. There are 2,478 public housing units across the N.W.T.

The wait for public housing units is long. As of July 12, there were 761 people or families on a waiting list for public housing in the territory.

Yellowknife, for example, had 222 on the waiting list with 344 units available in the city. Behchoko, with 188 available units, had 111 on a waiting list. Only two of the 32 communities with public housing do not have a waiting list.

The housing corporation's budget for 2015-16 was $103 million. More than half of that was consumed by operating costs associated with public housing, including a $25.7 million utility bill and $10.6 million in repairs and maintenance. Rental revenue amounted to just over $9.8 million.

Cochrane told the CBC that, on average, it costs about $22,500 annually to maintain a public housing unit.

With so much money spent on maintaining housing stock, home ownership could do more than offer pride of ownership for residents, it could free up money currently spent on maintenance for spending on other public housing projects.

"If I move 10 people out of public housing and into home ownership, that frees up the possibility that I can provide support to 10 more families," Cochrane said.

"It would save money that we could reinvest into more public housing units thereby meeting the need of more people."

Candidates in the lease-to-own program would assume responsibility for household maintenance, utilities and other expenses. They would not be expected to take this on all at once, and would receive support from the housing corporation to stay on top of basic maintenance through annual inspections and training.

Housing will get more challenging

The federal government has, at times, made cash injections to build new housing stock.

Between 2007 and 2012, the territorial government and the then-Conservative federal government invested more than $200 million in Northern housing. More than 500 new homes were built in the N.W.T., with the remaining money put toward maintenance and upgrades to existing homes.

In 2016, the federal government announced $177 million over two years to be split between the provinces and territories, with $12 million going to the N.W.T., and a further $15 million earmarked for the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.

But the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has warned that the federal government cannot afford to address the full spectrum of need across Canada for public housing.

Cochrane said the new home ownership program, if successful, could free residents from the generational need for public housing and allow them to build a legacy of home and property in their communities. 

"I do believe that home ownership is the key," Cochrane said. "It helps [residents] feel good about themselves, it helps them in taking responsibility for the homes, it helps them to feel better about their situation.

"We're moving into a home ownership model with our public housing units."

The project is to start with 10 units, but Cochrane expects demand for the program to be high.

"I would like to see this go on long after my term as minister of housing," Cochrane said. "I think it is part of the answer."