Several years ago, I wrote a book chapter on homelessness in Yellowknife, a city located in northern Canada. After a very long production cycle, the book has recently been published and is now available for purchase here.

Here are 7 things to know:

1. Housing is more expensive to build in the Northwest Territories (NWT) than in most other regions of Canada. This stems from higher construction costs, largely due to the costs involved with transporting work crews and supplies to rural communities. Further, once housing is built, it deteriorates more quickly in the NWT than it would in most other Canadian jurisdictions due in part to large temperature differentials between outside and inside houses in winter.

2. Operating costs for housing are usually higher in the NWT as well. This has a great deal to do with higher energy consumption (due to cold weather) and higher energy prices. In the words of my long-time mentor, Luigi Zanasi: “In Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the cost of drinking water and sewage disposal is extremely high as houses depend on trucked water delivery and sewage tank pumpouts.”[i]

3. Perhaps not surprisingly, renting an apartment in Yellowknife is expensive. As of October 2023, average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Yellowknife was $1,874. The corresponding figure for Toronto was $1,697. Cost factors discussed above are major reasons for Yellowknife’s expensive rent. Another stems from one private landlord owning nearly three-quarters of the city’s rental units (possibly putting that landlord in a monopoly situation).

4. Across the NWT, social conditions often push people to leave small communities for Yellowknife. Such conditions include inadequate housing, high rates of violence, and unemployment. Those who go to the city are often unemployed and homeless upon arrival.

5. Recent enumeration supports the theory that migration drives homelessness in Yellowknife. According to Yellowknife’s 2021 Point-In-Time Homeless Count (available here), more than 90% of Yellowknife’s homeless population is not originally from Yellowknife, with nearly two-thirds being from another NWT community.

6. One takeaway from all of this is that homelessness knows few borders. Indeed, in order to address homelessness in one city, investments are also necessary in rural areas. This learning applies to other parts of Canada and beyond.

7. One important local innovation is the relaxation of rent thresholds/allowances for social assistance recipients. In April 2018, the ‘rent cap’ for single social assistance recipients without dependants was removed. Previously, this group had been allocated a maximum of $900 per month for rent from social assistance funds, making it very difficult to find rental housing. But now, it’s not unheard of for a single employable social assistance recipient without dependants to have the rent for a $1,500/month one-bedroom housing unit fully covered by the rental portion of their social assistance benefits. As long as the person remains eligible for social assistance, they can access the rental allowance.

In sum. The full book chapter lays out, in detail, an extensive suite of policy responses funded by all orders of government. But a key takeaway is that, as long as there’s deep poverty outside of Yellowknife, homelessness will exist in Yellowknife.

I wish to thank Sylvia Regnier and Annick Torfs for assistance with this blog post.

[i] Luigi Zanasi, Discussion Paper on Expiry of Federal Funding for Social Housing: Implications for the Territorial Housing Corporations (Whitehorse: NWT, Nunavut and Yukon Housing Corporations, 2007) 21.