The insecurity surrounding housing in the Northwest Territories

Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs
APTN National News
In the capital of the Northwest Territories, $1,800 per month may not even get you the keys to a one bedroom apartment.

According to data from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), tenants in Yellowknife pay some of the highest rents in the country.

The barriers to accessible and affordable housing leave many northerners turning to friends and family for support.

Muriel Betsina, a Dene Elder from the small community of Ndilo First Nations located outside Yellowknife, said vulnerable community members frequently drop by in need of a place to stay for the night.

“They knock at your door and its freezing cold outside,” said Betsina.

Betsina, a residential school survivor, said she knows about trauma and compassion. She has been a caregiver of four generations.

Although she now owns her own home, for years she lived in a smaller, older home raising seven children until she was able to buy her current home.

Betsina said she was never able to obtain a mortgage from a bank to purchase a that the same housing inequities are pressing future generations.

Three of her children live with her now.

“My son had mould in his home and I said get out of that place right now it’s no good! My Grandson, he was catching pneumonia forever and going to the hospital where they blamed the mother,” she said.

Betsina’s grandson is healthy now, but overcrowding in homes across the N.W.T. is of great concern for First Nation leaders.

Chief Edward Sangris, of Dettah, another small First Nation’s community close to Yellowknife, recognizes the dwindling numbers of social housing apartments.

“Social housing lease agreements are for 30 years, if we do a rent-to-own agreement it reduces the numbers we have to build and maintain for social housing,” Sangris said.

The houses that Sangris and the Community do manage to obtain are often substandard.

“They don’t build the houses according to the region and climate. They don’t build a house to standards for cold weather. The packages come from down south and what you see is what you get,” he explained.

The Minister for Northwest Territories Housing Corporation, Caroline Cochrane, told APTN that to her knowledge, approximately 600 families with children are in need of housing support across the N.W.T.

Cochrane said that providing housing for every applicant comes with a hefty price tag.

“CMHC provides funding to provinces and territories for the maintenance of social housing units. Both in the market community’s remote communities it costs us an average of about $22,000 per unit.”

APTN spoke with many individuals who had been dealing with arrears before they were able to get onto a wait list for social housing.

Cochrane said that many individuals who are in debt avoid the situation until they close to eviction.

“The reality again is that the rent that we charge people is based off of people’s employment,” said Cochrane. “If someone is really financially not well that they don’t have an income or don’t have enough income they do qualify for income support. We have a vast majority within small communities outside of Yellowknife that are only paying like $70 per month.”

She said that the CMHCs money for social housing will be phased out entirely by 2038 and during this transitional period, it will be up to the territorial government to take over financial responsibility.

Joe Pintarics, manager of the Tlicho Friendship Centre, the only drop-in centre in the community of Behchoko, an hour north of Yellowknife, suggested understanding each tenant’s unique situation and have clients pay back housing debts through sweat equity.

“I would strongly encourage for housing corporations to come up with a better strategy for dealing with debt. If they want payments than they need to start organizing it in such a way that they make the payments happen in more collaborative ways and not the heavy handed way of ‘look you pay up or we throw you out of the house,” he said.

Pintarics argued that greater efforts need to be made on behalf of the government to develop social capital with housing corporations and social services assisting clients to gain meaningful employment.

In Behchoko, a community of 2,000, has upwards of 125 residents who are homeless at any given time. Many of the boarded up inhabitable houses and shacks are being lived in.

“We are talking about people who will spend their winter in tents with or with no heat and water or some have a cabin that has been abandoned that they can get into. Some will go from warehouse to warehouse looking for wherever they can get into,” Pintarics said.

He said the friendship centre can only do so much due to a lack of funding, but that could change.

Federal Budget 2017 has slated $300 million over the next eleven years to support northern living.

$36 million of that will be allocated to the Northwest Territories, breaking down to roughly $3.2 million-per-year.

[email protected]