A new not-for-profit in Yellowknife is hoping to help protect renters and help them navigate through the legal system.
Lisa Thurber, founder and executive director of the Tenants Association NWT, says solidarity is the key to bringing change.
“If we all come together and file an application with the rental office and we have 70-75 per cent of a building apply to withhold the rent from the landlord,” she said at a meeting on March 11 in Makerspace Yellowknife. “Then we would be able to get the landlord’s attention.
Thurber has lived across denendeh and said the issue of housing is a personal one for her.
“It started with my aunt’s clogged toilet and the amount of paperwork, and the process was disheartening,” Thurber said. “Three years of CRA [Canadian Revenue Agency] assessments to ensure she didn’t have any money while she already was on income support meanwhile public housing didn’t give her a chance to put in a quote for repairs instead, they said they would give her a loan to pay back.”
The association aims to protect tenants from challenges such as unjust evictions, overdue repairs, rent hikes and landlord retaliation.
These types of advocates exist in most of Canada, but in the north, renters have had to fight tooth and nail on their own when filing a complaint with their landlord, Housing NWT, a departmental program by the territorial government.
Housing NWT provides property management services, operates 24 local housing authorities, and administers 2,400 public housing units along with several units under the units mixed under a market housing program intended to provide more housing options in non-market rental communities.
“In my opinion, I think the rental office doesn’t see the government and local housing authorities as landlords, they see them more like a program where tenants are in the wrong,” Thurber said. “Housing uses language [in eviction letters] like ‘tenant repeated failed,’ but when tenants repeatedly try to work with Housing NWT they are sent to the rental office.”
APTN NEWS asked for an interview with Housing NWT several times but was declined an interview.
At the board meeting Arlene Hache, a long-time social justice advocate, recalled a time when more than a dozen families were being evicted from the Tlicho dene community of Behchoko.
“The housing authority had a lawyer but none of the tenants had one. The judge ‘I’m concerned because none of those tenants are here not a single one’ and the judge said ‘I am too but I can’t do anything so everyone was evicted,’” Hache said.
Hache said tenants need the new association to advocate on their behalf through legal proceedings.
Thurber has collaborated and drawn upon her experiences working with several organizations including Ontario-based Keepers of the Circle and the Women’s National Housing and Homeless Network.
“I went to my first rental hearing with a client who had moved into a unit in June 2022 and received their first eviction notice of August 2022. But it took them two months to tell her what rent would be and they were overcharging her rent,” Thurber said.
“The client received a nasty letter saying she hadn’t paid the full rent or her damage deposit and was $5,000 in arrears, but we have a rental scale.”
Thurber explained because the client was low income, she had the housing authority adjust her rent down to the correct value determined by her income threshold – $80 a month.
Annie Thrasher is one client who utilizes the rental scale but there’s a trade-off. She’s lived with two broken and boarded-up front windows for the last seven months.
The Inuvialuit mother and grandmother is a client of Yellowknife Housing Authority and has lived in Lankey Court Apartments for the last three years.
“Growing up in Paulatuk, I didn’t see bad housing like this,” Thrasher said. “To be in a city where things don’t get done for months well, I think policy and procedures need to be looked at because a lot don’t work.”
In every corner of the apartment, there are issues. The ventilation system in her kitchen and bathroom is inoperable and just as she’s eradicated a bed bug situation, she’s recently noticed cockroaches crawling up through her sinks.
Lankey Court apartments is owned by Northview REIT, a company that has had a monopoly on market rentals across the three territories for decades.
APTN News requested an interview with Northview but did not receive a comment back by the time of publication.
“I don’t want to have to keep phoning and I don’t want to hear excuses,” Thrasher said. “It’s[repairs] have to be done within ten days but they tell me since Sept they don’t have the windows.”
A cold draft seeps through her unlevel doors and she has had to keep the oven on when the temperature dips below -40 just to stay warm.
Richard Edjericon, MLA representing Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, has vocalized housing issues in his riding over the past few sittings in the territory’s legislative assembly.
“The housing corporation has been around since 1972, prior to that Indian Affairs provided housing, that’s 53 years of doing this and they are getting a failing grade,” Ejericon said.
“I think Housing NWT should dissolve and hand over a lot of these responsibilities to Indigenous governments.”
According to the most recent annual report released for 2021-2022, the GNWT spent $115.9 million on operational costs related to housing.
Meanwhile, the total revenues for the Housing Corporation were $141.1 million, an increase of $5 million from the previous year’s total of $136.1 million.
That leaves a surplus of $25.2 million for Housing NWT.
The increase was attributed to recoveries related to the allowance on mortgages, market rental revenue, portfolio investment income and tenant rental assessments.
Edjericon said he’s had constituency contact him over rental hikes when financial assistance payments during the COVID-19 pandemic were viewed as employable income.
“I want to bring the housing minister to my riding for public forums and have people question the minister about it. That’s one avenue I wanted to bring up those issues in a fair and transparent way,” he said.
Thurber said rent increases and forced evictions are a top priority for the new Tenants Association NWT.
As first reported by Cabin Radio, residents of Yellowknife’s Birchwood Apartments and Townhomes noted rent increases as high as 46 per cent. One resident who wished to remain anonymous in fear of landlord retaliation told APTN News her rent is going up $2950, a hike of $950.
“They gave us notice this January, saying they were raising our rent on May 1, where am I going to go” Thurber said. “People can’t afford these rents plus this building is old.
The tenant said hers and her neighbour’s units are rife with black mold.
“I don’t sleep upstairs I have to sleep downstairs because I have issues with mold. And in Jan 2022 before the present owner bought the building, I was told I would be moved because while they were dealing with the mold,” she said.
Kenny Ruptash, owner of Nahanni Construction took ownership of the Birchwood Apartments and townhouses in November 2022.
APTN spoke with Birchwood property manager Krista Simmons who said they’ve played catch up on repairs since acquiring the 14 townhouse units and 18 apartment units.
“We fixed the heat issue in December, and we’ve been steady with repairs,” Simmons said. “As tenants move out it’s easier to renovate when people are out, and we haven’t rented any of the units out.”
On the topic of rent hikes, Simmons said the company raised the rent in Birchwood to reflect competitive market costs.
“Not everyone had a rent increase, in some of the units’ tenants were already paying $600-$800 difference from their neighbour and we just regulated a flat rate for all of them,” she said.