North

Yellowknife Women's Society should reapply for funding for Arnica Inn, says minister of housing

The minister of housing for the N.W.T. has spoken publicly for the first time about a failed transitional housing project.

Minister says transitional housing project not necessarily dead, MLAs skeptical

The N.W.T. housing minister says the Yellowknife Women's Society should reapply for funding to convert the Arnica Inn to transitional housing. (Steve Silva/CBC)

The minister responsible for housing in the Northwest Territories has, for the first time, addressed news from last week that a transitional housing project in the city of Yellowknife was denied because her department would not support it.

In the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Tuesday, Housing Minister Paulie Chinna said the public does not have all the facts — and neither does she.

"I have not seen the final application," Chinna said. "I have not seen the business plan. It has not been shared with us and I would strongly … encourage the Yellowknife Women's society to quickly reach out to us."

The conversion of the Arnica Inn, a two-storey motel in Yellowknife, to a shelter would have provided homes for 42 people. The Yellowknife Women's Society had applied for funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to make it happen. The society asked for $4 million in CMHC funding, conditional on $650,000 in additional funding from the territory's housing corporation.

The CMHC rejected the application of Feb. 14. Days later, the women's society claimed it had learned from the corporation that the application was rejected because the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation refused to support it.

In the Legislative Assembly Tuesday, Chinna said the NWT Housing Corporation "going forward doesn't have any issues with the project," but needs more information before it can commit money to it. She said the cost of potential renovations or environmental assessments remain unknown, as well as concerns, expressed, she said, by the CMHC in a letter, about the "feasibility" of the project.

N.W.T. Housing Minister Paulie Chinna said she doesn't have all the facts about the CMHC's rejection of the Arnica Inn project. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"They [CMHC] were concerned about the feasibility of the project and they did not elaborate on it," Chinna said.

"If we open these 43 units and the building is not feasible what are we going to do as a government with 43 people that would end up having to evacuate that building within six months?" she asked. "Are we in a financial state to house 43 people that would end up on the street?"

Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society which spearheaded the housing initiative, clarified on Wednesday that the inn would have provided 42 units for housing, plus another suite for offices. 

Chinna encouraged the Yellowknife Women's Society to get in touch with her department as soon as possible to prepare a reapplication for funding from the CMHC.

Minister under fire

Chinna's explanation did nothing to quell a chorus of unease expressed by several regular MLAs over the apparent failure of the project, and the failure of the housing corporation to keep the government informed of the project's status.

Caitlan Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake, said support for the project was unanimous.

Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Kam Lake, said the project had '100 per cent' support. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

"The GNWT [Government of the Northwest Territories] has known about this project for almost a year," Cleveland said. "Every Yellowknife MLA was told of this plan during the election and 100 per cent of us were in support of this project.

"Today I want answers … how did we get to this point? How did the housing minister fail to adequately communicate with the women's society and regular MLAs, and most importantly why has the GNWT chosen not to support this project?"

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty said the government missed the opportunity to leverage a  "trifling sum" of $650,000 against the $4 million the federal government would have contributed through the CMHC to house homeless northerners.

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty said the project was a missed opportunity. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"You would think that a government that cares about homelessness would jump to such a great deal," Lafferty said. "Yet, astoundingly, the territorial housing corporation didn't respond to the society's request for support let alone offer to help."

In response to these and other questions raised by MLAs in the House, Chinna reiterated that she did not have enough information about why the society's application was rejected, and that she encouraged the Yellowknife Women's Society to quickly contact her department so that they could resubmit an application for funding before a deadline at the end of March.

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, was incredulous of Chinna's explanation and her proposal that the organization reapply for funding.

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson found the housing minister's explanations lacking. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"It is clear the minister does not understand the situation," Johnson said.

"The current agreement to purchase [the Arnica Inn] expires on March 31. The CMHC turnaround time on a reallocation is 300 days ... this project cannot go forward on a reallocation.

"Will the minister contact the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and ask them to change their rejection of this project?"

Johnson asked Chinna if the housing corporation would commit to finding $650,000 for the project, and contact the CMHC to tell them the project at their full financial backing.

Chinna said that financial exercise could only come after the project is approved.

"If it is submitted and it is approved by the housing corporation we would have to find money," Chinna said.

With files from Donna Lee

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