A tiny home solution to a big housing problem in this N.W.T. community

Tiny homes built with local lumber may be part of a solution to housing shortages in Jean Marie River, N.W.T.

Jean Marie River First Nation has reopened sawmill, wants to build tiny homes to help with housing shortage

A sawmill is shown operating in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. The Jean Marie River First Nation would like to use its own sawmill to address housing issues in the community. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Jean Marie River Chief Stan Sanguez says the newly reopened sawmill in his N.W.T. community holds the solution to its housing shortage — tiny homes built with local lumber.

"I prefer that we don't have public units, we'll make small affordable homes, everybody will own their own home," Sanguez said in an interview.

There are only 26 homes and 77 people in the Dehcho community, located on the Jean Marie River where it joins the Mackenzie River. Sanguez says 10 more homes are needed, especially to accommodate young adults like Kyla Norwegian Wanderingspirit.

"I currently live with my dad," said the 22-year-old. "It's a two-bedroom house but my brother and sister usually come to visit and that's when it gets crowded the most. I would like to live on my own and have my own space."

Wanderingspirit said she wrote the chief and council a letter saying she's interested in a tiny home if the Jean Marie River First Nation gets the project off the ground.

Kyla Norwegian Wanderingspirit, 22, would be happy to living in a tiny home in Jean Marie River, N.W.T.

They reopened the sawmill last fall. It employs six people when it's operating. She aspires to become a welder and is keen to help build the home herself.

A 'good idea,' says minister

Sanguez spoke with N.W.T. Housing Minister Alfred Moses about the idea. Moses convened a pan-territorial housing summit in Inuvik last week where Indigenous leaders expressed concern and frustration that so many people are homeless, couch-surfing or living in overcrowded conditions.

In total, the N.W.T. has 928 people waiting for housing, the majority of which are looking for one-bedroom units.

"I said 'minister, I'm the solution to your problem, I have a sawmill, please help me with what you can'," Sanguez said. "We want to see if we can address the needs of the communities and maybe the region of building small affordable homes."

"It was a good idea," Moses said in an interview Wednesday. "Yukon's doing it, you know, whatever works as long as you got a good proposal that meets the building codes and standards of the North and it's safe for the residents then that could be something, a lot of jurisdictions are looking in that area."

Housing money available

Moses said $140 million is available to the N.W.T. over the next 10 years under a bilateral agreement through the National Housing Strategy. Another federal co-investment fund provides $60 million and about $36 million will go to the N.W.T. from the Northern Housing Fund.

In order to access any of that money, communities will have to complete a Community Housing Plan, a new initiative of the N.W.T Housing Corporation, Moses said.

"We've got about six communities that we're working with — three have signed on already, three more we're working with — to develop an agreement and they'll let us know what their priorities are," he said.

Sanguez said he's asked for a housing official to help his community with its plan. It would include such details as how many beds would be needed for each tiny home. The homes can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $60,000 to build, he said.

Paying for them is another hurdle. Moses said the territorial government is rolling out a home ownership pilot project as well as a lease-to-own program for people in public housing with a good track record for paying rent and being good tenants.

"If we can get people in leases-to-own, or into the home ownership [program], then it will allow us to open up our inventory for more public housing in the communities," Moses said. "Working with the leadership, those were the discussions that we had last week."

His department is working on a report from last week's housing summit. Moses said it's expected by the summer and will be made public.