Years of leaks and mould, and finally a promise that repairs will be done right
Tawaak Housing to fix dozens of housing units for Indigenous families in N.S.
Long-awaited renovations for 36 housing units in Nova Scotia run by Tawaak Housing Association are underway, and the organization says there are significant new measures being taken to reassure tenants the work is done well.
Tenants of the non-profit housing provider for Indigenous families began to speak out in the winter, showing evidence of leaks, mould, broken windows and other maintenance problems they said have plagued Tawaak buildings for years.
"There were always bugs, there were rats there," said Sheena McCulloch, who lived in a Tawaak building in Dartmouth, N.S., from 2010 to 2017.
McCulloch, who has filed a lawsuit against Tawaak over her concerns that has not yet been heard in court, said her landlord sent exterminators but the pest and maintenance problems continued.
"The exterminator guys would always say, 'Oh, we always have problems with these units. They just call us when the tenants complain.'"
Tawaak received $3.7 million in March through a federal-provincial agreement. The money is part of a three-year Canada-Nova Scotia housing agreement under the National Housing Strategy.
Tawaak will repair 36 units in the first year, then 17 in the next year, and 18 in the final year, for a total of 71 units. Construction work began in August on the first two units, which are scheduled to be finished by the end of September.
Glooscap First Nation Chief Sidney Peters, who joined the Tawaak board last year, said he thinks tenants and the public will be pleased to see the final results.
"I wanted to ensure that this is all transparent and accountable for the dollars that go into it, and we'll see good results," he said, adding that another of his key goals is better communication with tenants.
Tawaak is the third-largest non-profit housing provider in Nova Scotia, which makes it a significant player in the affordable housing market. Of the top three, it's the only one that is dedicated to Indigenous families.
Peters attributes the problems with Tawaak Housing to federal underinvestment in housing over years. But he acknowledges Tawaak has internal problems as well. He believes leadership, along with modern and computerized office procedures, were areas where the organization was lacking.
"One of the things that I identified is I think it's really important to have good governance. And also I think it's really important to ensure that your team, your staff, have good direction," he said.
A search is underway for new board members this fall and Peters said this will bring greater accountability in handling the $3.7-million repair grant.
Peters said there's also a "big difference" in the way the current repair project is being handled, compared to the last time extensive repairs were done.
This is the second time Tawaak has received a major capital upgrade grant from the government. The first was from 2007 to 2009, when the organization received $2.27 million from a federal fund administered by the province.
CBC obtained records from that period using access-to-information laws, and they paint a picture of a massive job that had to be done in a short period of time.
Tawaak owns more than 50 buildings scattered around the province, and of the 145 units in those buildings 114 were slotted for repairs. Some locations needed repairs to siding, roofs, decks, windows, doors, brick chimneys, or entire kitchens and bathrooms replaced.
According to the agreements it signed with the province, Tawaak had nine months in 2007-2008 to complete repairs on 67 units. It had five months in 2008-2009 to repair 47 units.
The bulk of the money went to a small contractor that regularly did maintenance for Tawaak, and which submitted the lowest price.
Tawaak wasn't required to tender the job, but in an audit by a chartered accounting firm, the accountants warned the board of directors at the time they had concerns about the contractor's insurance and that major work should be well scrutinized.
"While the Association has developed a strong relationship with this contractor, it must ensure it continues to receive quality work at competitive rates," the accountants wrote to the board.
Peters wasn't on the board at the time, but said it "very well could be" that Tawaak didn't get good value for money in the 2007-2009 repairs.
Peters also said he felt it was important there be "new checks and balances" this time.
These have included hiring an engineering firm to do building-condition assessments for each property, a four-person project management team, and a tendering process that selected a larger company called DORA Construction which has worked on projects in Mi'kmaw communities in the past.
"I'm excited about it. And I hope that our tenants will be as well," he said.
"That's why, you know, it has taken so long behind the scenes to ensure that we have everything in place that's needed to ensure that a good job is done. And I consider this money is our money, to make sure it's going to last for the benefit of our First Nations people that have a more safe place to live. And that's the main goal behind this," he said.
Peters said tenants could expect to hear more from Tawaak in forms such as a newsletter and a video where the organization plans to document the changes to the buildings.