New Report Paints Grim Picture of Public Housing in the NWT

CBC Special Report, Thursday, November 24, 2011, 7:15 a.m.

JOSLYN OOSENBRUG, CBC: Now there are about 2,500 public housing units across the Northwest Territories. Many of them are in desperate need of repair and so the waiting list for housing keeps getting longer. Now new research out of Carlton University shows the housing situation is only going to get worse unless there are some drastic changes to the system. Nick Falvo is the lead researcher on the study that was published in this year’s edition of How Ottawa Spends, released by Carlton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. Falvo teamed up with the Centre of Northern Families’ Arlene Hache to take a closer look at the state of public housing here in the Northwest Territories and both Arlene and Nick join me this morning in studio to go over some of the details. Good morning to you both.

FALVO: Good morning.

HACHE: Good morning.

CBC: So, Arlene, let’s start with you. You approached Nick right, to do this research? Why did you want to take a closer look at public housing here in the North?

HACHE: From our perspective public housing is the number one issue in terms of how families and people are directly impacted around homelessness and of family breakdown and people giving their children to child welfare because they can’t even keep a home. So we were really interested in partnering with the Carlton University to take a more in-depth look at the history of housing in the Northwest Territories, where the resources are, who should be contributing and of course the federal government is on their way out of giving any money to the Northwest Territories. So we wanted to really lay the foundation for the GNWT to be able to persuade the federal government to stay committed to housing in the North, and we wanted to also look at the policies of the GNWT and barriers that are there in terms of people keeping their house or getting into housing, and that’s another sort of big unanswered question.

CBC: So, Nick, can you paint us a bit of a picture? What is the picture of public housing here in the Northwest Territories?

FALVO: Well the picture of public housing here is a bit like housing in the rest of Canada, but there’s a very important difference and that is that in the North it is very expensive to build and maintain housing and there are three main reasons for that. One is that there is a considerable amount of poverty, especially in small communities. Second, building costs are higher in the North, especially on the Arctic Coast. Third, utility costs are considerably higher in the Northwest Territories than in the rest of Canada. So for all three of those reasons it is quite expensive to build and maintain a unit in the North. So the role of the federal government is very important in terms of social housing nationally, but it is especially important in the North largely because of those cost factors.

CBC: And why are we hearing that so many of the public housing units here are in such poor condition?

FALVO: I think a key reason is the ongoing cost involved. So, for example, when public housing is built in the Northwest Territories there are capital costs, but after the capital costs are factored in there’s still about 15 to $20,000 a year needed by the government to maintain that unit, to pay for things like utility costs and it’s an expensive undertaking, households are stretched far more here than in the rest of Canada. So one of the factors is that when something needs to be fixed it is expensive to fix it and there’s a real cost issue involved there.

CBC: And does that mean that our more remote communities are in a tougher spot?

FALVO: Absolutely. The research finds that when it comes to households living in crowded conditions and households living in houses that need major repairs, the smaller communities are hit much harder than the regional centres and even the regional centres are hit more than most parts of Canada.

CBC: And, Arlene, what about in terms of accessibility to housing? You said that was one of the other elements that you looked at is the access that people have to the public housing system. What did you find?

HACHE: We find that there are specific policies in place that prevent people from getting into housing or maintaining housing. One of the policies, for example, is if you owe money to any housing authority you can’t get into any housing in small communities because it’s all controlled by the housing authorities. So some of the debt that’s owed is as a result of damage that was done to units in spousal violent relationship. So that debt is carried for 20 or 30 years and that person is never able to get back into housing. So we wanted to look at some of the ways that we can shift those policies a little bit so that we can, you know, really take a look at the prevention of evictions from low cost housing.

CBC: Now in terms of the federal government’s role, the government has cost sharing agreements with the Northwest Territories and over the last five years or so we see more federal funding go to the North towards housing. So why isn’t this enough?

HACHE: I think that that commitment by the federal government in terms of finances to the North for housing was significant, but not nearly enough either to even begin to scratch what we need in the Northwest Territories. The other thing is the territorial government has, more than any other province or territory, really committed dollars to housing. So our own territorial government has shown that kind of commitment. So that’s pretty impressive to me. I’m not so impressed about the policy type things, but in terms of real commitment around housing, they’ve been there and more recently they’ve really tried to take homeownership units that didn’t work out and really struggled to make that subsidized housing and they’ve told us that those units are full or will be full really soon. So from what I can tell the GNWT is maxing the most that they can, making sure people are in housing. So that’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that we have major issues around people not being able to find a house.

CBC: Nick, how big is that gap between what the territorial government needs in order to be able to provide housing for people and what is actually there?

FALVO: Well I’ll put it this way, traditionally in Canada you’ve got the federal government leading social housing and this started in earnest in the early 1960s and generally the federal government would spend at least 50 percent of the costs involved in housing and often substantially more. This is across the provinces and territories. It stopped announcing new ongoing funding for social housing in the early 1990s and some of these more recent announcements, they’re one-off announcements, they represent substantial amounts on an annual basis, but they’re one-off and they’re not putting in place a permanent program. So now we’ve got these operating agreements that have been in place for decades that are starting to sunset and by 2038, as I’m sure you’re aware, these run out completely. So right now each housing unit that exists is in need of about 15 to $20,000 a year a public housing unit to an operation and maintenance. When the federal contribution runs out and they run out on different agreements every year, that unit is very vulnerable. They’re vulnerable all across Canada, but especially in the North where the federal commitment is that much more important.

CBC: Now I’m wondering, the Northwest Territories government is trying to get out of providing public housing and they’re trying to move away from that and move into home ownership. So is that part of the solution?

HACHE: I think it’s a part of the solution, but it’s unrealistic because unemployment and poverty in the communities is a huge factor and there’s really no evidence that the resources are there or the support is there for people to succeed in homeownership. So a part of the question for me is looking at did homeownership in the communities succeed and if it didn’t why didn’t it and there’s a number of people that just could not manage financially, you know, maintaining their home and looking after the monthly operations of the home. So I think it’s simplistic and not wise to just focus on homeownership. So that’s a fairly frightening prospect when you’re looking at the fact that people don’t have jobs and how can they own their own home then, and if you look at, you know, the situation in Yellowknife, the homeownership concept in Yellowknife didn’t even operate because you really couldn’t buy a home for the cap that they were giving you. So having programs available and whether or not it actually works is a totally different question.

CBC: So, Arlene, what do you see as a solution or a part of the solution for this dilemma?

HACHE: Well I think that that’s why we wanted to partner so desperately with Carlton University to really take an in-depth look at that so we don’t get lost in really simple talk about what the solutions are. I think that it’s a very complex situation. I’m interested in looking at a process whereby we can look at the debt people have in housing and take a look at maybe a system where women who have experienced violence and the debt is related to that, have that debt weighed. They do wave huge amounts of money in my view for business enterprises that go down the toilet, but they don’t do that for people who owe amounts of money for housing. So I want to look at a range of things and I’m hoping Carlton University can help us really drill down into what the real solutions will be. They did come up with some recommendations. CBC: Okay and, Nick, we’ve just got a couple of seconds, but if you can just tell us briefly what some of the things are that our government can look at?

FALVO: I think for one thing it’s absolutely crucial that the federal government step up and recommit to housing. This is not the time for the federal government to be moving back and allowing agreements to expire. It’s the time for them to be recommitting, but also homelessness is primarily a territorial responsibility and last spring in May Arlene and I released a research accord looking at homelessness, focusing on Yellowknife as a case study, but making recommendations for the Territory as a whole. Those recommendations have not been acted on and we’re looking to the Government of the Northwest Territories to act on those. Men at the emergency shelter in Yellowknife still sleep one foot apart from each other every night at the same shelter where there was a tuberculosis outbreak just a few years ago. So we’d like to see the Government of the Northwest Territories act on that.

CBC: It’s a huge scope of a problem. So I look forward to a lot more discussion on this in the future. Thanks to both of you for being here.

HACHE: Thank you.

FALVO: Thank you.

CBC: And that’s Nick Falvo and Arlene Hache. They’re the authors of a new paper on public housing in the Northwest Territories that’s going to be officially released at noon today. It’s published in this year’s edition of How Ottawa Spends, a publication of the Carlton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration.

CBC Radio, Thursday, November 24, 2011, 12:30/5:30 p.m.

ROBYN BURNS, CBC: A new report is painting a sad picture about the state of public housing in the Northwest Territories. Many of the 2,500 public housing units in the Territory are in desperate need of repairs. The waiting lists keep getting longer. Today at city hall in Yellowknife, the report’s author, Nick Falvo, a PhD student from Carlton University, is sharing his findings. Falvo found per capita the NWT spends 25 times more on housing than any other province.

FALVO: It is very expensive to build and maintain housing and there are three main reasons for that. One is that there is a considerable amount of poverty, especially in small communities. Second, building costs are higher in the North, especially on the Arctic Coast. Third, utility costs are considerably higher in the Northwest Territories than in the rest of Canada.

CBC: There are currently 400 families waiting for housing in the Northwest Territories. In most recent years the federal government has not committed to longer-term funding for public housing. The report recommends the federal government do that.

CBC Special Report, Thursday, November 24, 2011, 5:15 p.m.

PETER HOPE, CBC: As you’ve been hearing in the news, a report on the government-assisted housing in the Northwest Territories and the role of the federal government was presented today and discussed at city hall. The co-sponsor of the report is Arlene Hache of the Centre for Northern Families. Arlene is familiar with challenges that many people face in the Territory trying to get housing, people like Lena Gon from Behchoko. Lena has been homeless since 1978. I spoke with them both earlier this afternoon. Arlene, welcome to the show. Lena, welcome to the show. Lena, I think I’ll start with you. You said that you owned a home in Behchoko from 1970 to around 1978. Tell me, what happened to your home.

GON: Those kind of half houses that’s rent to own before five years. I had bought it before five years because I was working in every position. I was working with disability. I was working with translating. I was working with the school. I was working with the hospital. And sometimes disability, they’d send me to translate for a kid out in Red Deer in the (inaudible) centre. So I was going back and forth like that and I had Shell Oil company, we owned a business, because my father-in-law, I borrowed money from him and got the business, me and my ex, and my late husband. He’s not with me anymore. He’s out looking after his dad in Alberta. And we ran the business out in Edzo hauling gas back and forth and all of a sudden they sent me to translate for a kid in Red Deer. All of a sudden I came back and I have no house. They told me I had to move because it’s not your house, they told me. It was those kind of houses rent to own before five years, and I had bought it and all of a sudden I’ve got no house to give gas from. They totally kicked me out of my own house in Edzo in the ‘70s, in 1978. All of a sudden I don’t have no place to haul gas from so I just moved to my father-in-law’s in Alberta.

CBC: Arlene, you’ve been talking to her. What exactly happened to her? Why did they kick her out all of a sudden?

HACHE: It really boils down to really policies that people don’t know about, policies and paper that people aren’t informed about, and it looked like she had really paid off her house, and it really was her house. And she owed just a tiny little bit on utilities, not very much at all. But someone used that as the reason to take her house away from her. So it was a very minor, very small sort of policy thing that ended up costing her her house. And she was travelling back and forth working so she wasn’t on top of it.

CBC: Lena, where have you been living since?

GON: I’ve been homeless since that. I’ve been here and there and I’ve been helping. For 10 years I helped my father-in-law on the farm. Then I came back here and at nights I got to school and then work in the day time just on and off and then helping people. Wherever the jobs are, I go. Then I couldn’t work anymore. My health is not that great so I was just here and there and going in and out of hospital. I’m one of the residential school survivors. Here I am, I was working in every position, sometimes in translating left and right, every position, and all of a sudden I’ve got no house to go to. It’s kind of upsetting.

CBC: Arlene, it looks like she’ going through a rough time. She’s going through a lot of stress. What have you been doing to help her out?

HACHE: We have written letters for the past 10 years or 20 years, it feels like, to the housing authority in Behchoko, to the First Nation in Behchoko, to the Housing Corporation, to the GNWT, and all of them sort of stand on policy and say it’s too bad this woman is suffering so much, but that’s the policy and suck it up. That’s basically the message. Lena’s position is she worked very hard all of her life in lots of jobs and if she had her house she would not be homeless today. Because they took her house she is going from place to place to place never being in a home and because she is living on disability and living in poverty she will never be able to afford a home. She has an opportunity though, because she’s getting a settlement from the residential school, a significant settlement to buy a home again, but those GNWT policies or housing policies, will they prevent her from getting a house again, because she can’t’ return to her community. She has to live in Yellowknife. So the other problem is once she moves to Yellowknife the First nation won’t help her. They just said you moved here, you’re in Yellowknife, not in the community. So she can’t live in her community, so what help do people have who can’t live in the community and live here. What is the obligation for the First Nation to provide support here?

CBC: What specific changes or improvement, Arlene, do you think is needed to happen so that people like Lena get a home?

HACHE: I think that there has to be a look at the history of cases like Lena to find out what was the problem. Do they owe her a house? She’s not alone. There’s other people that said, you know, the Government of the Northwest Territories or the Housing Corporation took my house or the community took my house. So I think there has to be some look at what is the story behind all of that. The other thing is we can’t have people who are disabled or elders or people not being able to have a home. So we have to look at the policies that prevent that from happening.

CBC: Arlene, how common is that that’s happening with Lena here, how common is that experience?

HACHE: The problem is I don’t have enough research to say strictly how often does that happen, but it’s happened often enough that I’ve known that over the years. At least four people I know are in that situation. One case has gone to the Human Rights at the United Nations because her community… The GNWT actually removed her name from homeownership papers and so they just said they made a mistake, but the fact is she’s out of a home. So she had lawyers that didn’t do their job, in my mind, and so now that case has gone to the United Nations because Canada didn’t help her deal with that. And she’s from a small community in the Northwest Territories. She got ripped off her house, basically, never to return to her home.

CBC: Well, Lena, you’re a fighter. You don’t give up. How hopeful are you that something good will happen?

GON: If I knew they were going to do that to me I would not go out to Red Deer and teach. I would not even go for welfare. I would not even think about welfare, because I worked all my life and I’ve been laughed at and treated rough and called down by residential school and everything else and here I think I deserve a lot more than just being treated like dirt. That’s how I feel.

CBC: Arlene, how hopeful are you for her that something might happen?

HACHE: I think, given the residential school money, she has an opportunity. The response from the government up to this point has not been good, and from the community it hasn’t been do. So I always have that little bit of hope, but I’m sure that Lena must be really discouraged.

CBC: Okay. Well, I thank you both for coming here to the studio to share this with us. Mahsi cho, Lena. Good luck.

GON: Mahsi cho, Peter.

CBC: Arlene, mahsi cho.

HACHE: Mahsi.

CBC: That was Arlene Hache from the Centre for Northern Families and Lena Gon. They dropped by in the studio this afternoon to share their stories with us.

CBC Northbeat, Thursday, November 24, 2011, 5:30 p.m.

DENEZE NAKEHK’O, CBC: A new report released today in Yellowknife paints a grim picture of housing in the Northwest Territories. A group of researchers from Carlton University presented the findings from their report at city hall earlier today. Hilary Bird was there and has more on this story.

BIRD: The findings of this report is nothing new. The amount of people in the Northwest Territories living in overcrowded homes more than four times that of the national average, and the amount of NWTers living in homes in need of major repairs, over three times that of the national average. But what is new is who this report is saying needs to step it up; the federal government. The report says the GNWT is doing the best it can spending more than 5.1 percent of its budget on housing. That’s 25 times more than the national average. As it stands now, the GNWT and the federal government share the cost of many housing programs, including public housing units and home ownership programs. The report says the problem is that the cost sharing agreement expires in 2038, meaning that in 26 years federal funding could dry up completely.

HACHE: If we don’t persuade the federal government to sort of lay out their commitment to housing, we will not stand a hope of surviving in any of the three territories, particularly the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

BIRD: But the MLA for Frame Lake, Wendy Bisaro, says the responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on federal shoulders.

BISARO: And I think it was a quote from the report which stated that homelessness is an issue that’s dealt with off the corner of somebody’s desk and that really struck home for me. It’s very true in my estimation.

BIRD: Absent from the presentation were representatives from the Housing Corporation and the Minister in charge of Housing, Robert C. McLeod. But Hache says that she met with McLeod yesterday to talk about this research. She says she was pleasantly surprised that the government is making it easier for people to get into public housing, but with more than $1,000 people in the NWT still on the waiting list for that housing, she says there’s still much more work to be done. Hilary Bird, CBC News, Yellowknife.

CJCD Radio, Friday, November 25, 2011, 6:00/8:00 a.m.

KATHERINE BURNS, CBC: Whether it’s building, buying or renting, housing costs in the NWT are through the roof. A presentation by a Carlton University PhD student yesterday put figures to that fact. The most staggering is that the cost of utilities in the Territory is double that of the rest of Canada. Nick Falvo says government funding is critical to maintaining housing.

FALVO: In 1993, the federal government discontinued its ongoing permanent commitment to social housing. So since that time there have been some one-off announcements of funding, but there’s never been an ongoing long-term commitment.

CJCD: Falvo and Arlene Hache, the executive director of the Centre for Northern Families, released a homelessness report for the GNWT in May and he says little has been done to address it.

FALVO: Wendy Bisaro did table the homelessness report in the Legislature and she has asked questions since that time. There was some discussion about the report in the lead up to the territorial election, but we’re still waiting for an actual response from the Government of the Northwest Territories.

CJCD: After the presentation, Hache and Bisaro, the MLA for Frame Lake, joined a panel discussion to talk housing costs.

CBC Radio, Friday, November 25, 2011, 6:30 a.m.

ROBYN BURNS, CBC: A new report released in Yellowknife paints a grim picture of housing in the Northwest Territories. It says people here are four times more likely to live in crowded conditions, and three times more likely to need major home repairs. The Carlton University research says the territorial government is doing what it can afford and the federal government needs to put up more money. Wendy Bisaro is the MLA for Frame Lake.

BISARO: And I think it was a quote from the report which stated that homelessness is an issue that’s dealt with off the corner of somebody’s desk, and that really struck home for me. It’s very true in my estimation.

CBC: In the Northwest Territories there are currently more than 400 families waiting for public housing.


Government-Assisted Housing in the Northwest Territories and the Role of the Federal Government, Nick Falvo, How Ottawa Spends

Use it or Lose It: The Conservatives’ Northern Development Strategy, Frances Abele, How Ottawa Spends

Publication Date: 
November 24, 2011
Journal Name: 
CBC News