Inadequate. Unaffordable. In short supply.
That about sums up the housing situation ever since governments first encouraged and enforced settlement in the North.
There’s a long list of complicated reasons for why that is—geography, government policy, gaps in funding—and the extent and specifics differ from Whitehorse to Iqaluit, from Fort Good Hope, NWT, to Yellowknife. But generally, as you move from west to east, the severity of the housing situation worsens, as it gets more difficult and expensive to build in communities only accessible by sea or winter road, and air.
Northern housing has been analysed to death, generating countless reports over the years. Still, fundamental problems persist. One remedy is obvious: More federal money is needed. Given the immensity of the region and the exorbitant costs of building and maintaining homes, nowhere near enough government cash has been doled out. For example, the 2019 Canada-Nunavut Housing Agreement includes nearly $316 million over 10 years from both levels of government, but a spokesperson from the Nunavut Housing Corporation says a minimum of $1.8 billion is required to meet the territory’s current public housing needs.
Yet an unprecedented building spree wouldn’t solve every issue. Housing is complex and multi-faceted in the North, overlapping with local education, health, infrastructure, and labour market challenges. For example, Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell says the city’s aging water system and frequent water shortages are constraining factors to growth. “Even if we build 1,000 houses, we can't put water to them,” he says.
The challenges can feel overwhelming. Insurmountable, even. But Northerners may not be doomed to expensive or shoddy housing forever. If governments, developers, non-profits, architects, and activists work together, there is hope.
Thankfully, the North has never been home to quitters. Instead of throwing their hands up in despair, there are people hard at work right now pushing ambitious solutions to decades-old problems, all with the goal of piecing together this colossal housing puzzle.
It’s so expensive to build in the North
Density, density density—building up and out drives down costs
It’s a fact of life: construction costs will always be higher in the North than down south. For instance, it’s roughly three times more expensive to build in Nunavut than in the Greater Toronto Area. But building up (think triplexes or three-storeys instead of single-detached homes) can make construction more efficient and financially prudent. That’s why Ed Romanowski, president and COO of Nunastar Properties, is always pushing for density.
While many new builds in Iqaluit are three- to five- storeys, it’s not a novel concept in the city—two towers, comprising 180 residential units, have been around for more than 50 years. Built and owned by Nunastar, the six- and eight-storey buildings are part of the Astro Hill complex, which includes restaurants, a movie theatre, a coffee shop, and more.
In the downtown core of a Northern city, multi-unit developments are smart for a few reasons. These buildings concentrate tenants in a walkable area where they most likely also work and play. They make sense for the developer too. “The higher the density, the lower the cost of infrastructure per unit,” says Romanowski. While it may cost $100,000 or more to connect a single-family home to roads, water, and the sewer system, infrastructure costs for a multi-level building of 30 or 40 units could be $15,000 or $25,000 per unit. The same goes for construction costs—generally, the per-unit price drops the more units you build.
For a city like Iqaluit, which suffers from a housing shortage, the more units you can get, the better. Mayor Kenny Bell says increased residential density downtown would be a good thing, while larger homes with yards can still be built in subdivisions. “Nunavut is the biggest land mass in Canada—we have lots of land—but it’s really expensive to develop it,” Bell says. One of his goals is making it easier for that development to take place, in part by updating the city’s zoning and planning bylaws.
This is something Romanowski is advocating for. Right now, if a developer builds a mixed-use building—with commercial space on the ground level and residential units above—it’s still taxed entirely as commercial, which is a higher rate than residential, he says. These costs get passed on to tenants, resulting in higher rent.
Romanowski says government officials of all levels would be wise to ask the following question every time they consider a course of action: “‘What will be the implication of this decision on the cost of housing to my constituents?’
You can’t even own a home in MANY places
While governments settle land claims and start converting leases to titled land, they should partner with private industry
Outside of the capitals and regional hubs, private housing markets are negligible to non-existent. Geared-to-income public housing is the primary option in many communities, though there’s nowhere near enough. Let’s take the Northwest Territories: as of the end of June 2021, the territorial government had 2,418 public housing units, with 914 people on the waitlist.
The roots of public housing in the North date back to post-World War II. The federal government erected homes for Indigenous residents, hoping to settle people into new communities around schools and health centres. Some public housing stock was also meant as an incentive for southern professionals to move north for work.
Today, many small communities in NWT have little economic activity and, as a result, income levels are lower. Here, the housing corporation plays a leading role in providing homes. But residents don’t always have the option to build in these places. It’s complicated, but here’s why: where land claims have not been settled, the GNWT’s Land Lease-Only policy applies. It prohibits land from being privately sold in order to ensure land claim negotiations are not prejudiced.
In these communities, residents can only lease land from the government, and banks aren’t keen to finance construction, repairs, or purchases on land that’s not titled. That means homeownership outside of the territory’s tax-based communities—Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, Norman Wells, Inuvik, and parts of Fort Simpson—is difficult to achieve, according to the NWT Chamber of Commerce. Renée Comeau, the chamber’s executive director, says governments need to settle outstanding land claims so lots can be converted to titled property in the smaller communities.
But that’s not the only problem. Since the NWT Housing Corporation has a monopoly in many small communities, it sets market rent. Even if private developers could own land and get financing, says Comeau, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the corporation’s rental rates, which range from $70 to $1,625 per month.
Nurses, teachers, and other well-paid professionals can afford to pay more than public-housing rates and they should. Yet in some cases they stay in public housing because there’s nowhere else to live. In one community, Comeau says, teachers lived in the seniors’ home. “Right now, there are communities with more housing inventory that is condemned than they have [housing] that people can live in,” she says—presumably because repairs are costly, and the government must often fly in workers for maintenance.
Even when local landlords or developers have tried to purchase unused, derelict housing, with the hopes of rebuilding units and putting them on the market, the government hasn’t been receptive, says Comeau. “They keep creating barrier after barrier after barrier. Private industry can and should be part of the solution.”
Earlier this year, the chamber expressed these concerns to the NWT’s Standing Committee on Social Development, which is looking at ways to increase the territory’s housing stock and improve housing options for residents. In June, the committee released its first report, encouraging the GNWT to “increase access to titled land to help homeowners and landlords meet financing and insurance obligations in NWT communities.” It also recommended the government “partner with the northern private sector, non-profit, and Indigenous governments to develop government lease agreements to support access to financing for the development of housing stock and programs.” The committee gave the government 120 days to respond to the recommendations.
Comeau hopes it will listen.
The government just won’t get out of the way
Simplify the process and give people options
Pick up any report on Northern housing and you’ll see much of the blame squarely cast at government bureaucracy. One of the most common complaints is a lack of coordination between all levels of government. This can take the form of contradictory policies or complicated, overlapping funding pools that leave residents confused about where to go for help or financial support.
For instance, the NWT determines public housing rents based on the income of all household members, so some people have been reluctant to welcome in friends or family experiencing homelessness because it might lead to a rent hike.
Governments can even create disincentives for people to work. In some cases, people worry about taking a new job, because they might have trouble affording rent when the new rate kicks in.
Neesha Rao, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, helps people navigate this bureaucracy. Typically, people enrolled in housing programs funded by the territorial government must apply for income assistance. Every month, they need to re-enroll in the program to prove they’re still eligible. “I have found the income assistance program to be very difficult—if not impossible—for people experiencing addictions to navigate,” says Rao.
She gives the territorial government credit for its creative approach to a new housing program called Spruce Bough during the COVID-19 pandemic. The GNWT gave the women’s society direct funding to house 38 people considered vulnerable to the virus in a former hotel—the Arnica Inn. Residents didn’t need to enroll—and re-enroll—in the income assistance program to pay their rent.
But with the pandemic (hopefully) winding down, Rao is trying to convince government officials not to return to their old ways. If that happens, it means staff will have to devote significant time to making sure their clients stay enrolled in the program. Inevitably, she says, people will fall through the cracks. “And then we would have no choice but to evict them.” It’s a Catch-22: the most vulnerable lose housing, as the government works to house the most vulnerable.
A recent Tlicho government study went even further, suggesting federal and territorial policies have “largely created institutionalization and dependency on government handouts.” That’s reflected in the NWT standing committee’s recent report, which found “almost all stakeholder groups individually spoke about the punitive nature of these policies and the overall feeling was they were working against people to access and sustain housing.”
The Spruce Bough has been successful so far. One resident, working in the building’s kitchen, saved up enough to pay back money she owed the housing corporation and moved into her own place. (Under the old model, the money she earned would have been deducted from her income assistance allowance and, ultimately, been collected as rent.) “It’s hard for people to get ahead under the current income assistance model,” Rao says. “It doesn’t support agency.”
Houses cost waaaay too much
Start a community land trust to keep prices down—permanently
That was the average sale price of a single-detached house in Whitehorse in early 2021, an increase of $81,800 from a year earlier. In that same period, the average condo sale price was $479,900—a record-high.
Housing prices are skyrocketing across the country. One factor at play in this boom is the financialization of housing—viewing a house as a money-maker rather than a place for people to live.
The Whitehorse residents behind the Northern Community Land Trust Society had the latter in mind when they came together last year to create a community land trust. The idea is to build a housing complex on land that’s held in trust to ensure permanent affordability. (When federal and territorial governments dole out money for affordable housing, it’s often subject to a 10- or 20-year term, after which prices can rise to market rates.)
In Whitehorse, the plan is to construct a 20- to 60-unit building that would provide affordable home ownership, with a few financing options. Residents could rent to own, meaning a portion of their rent would be set aside as credit towards their purchase. If they don’t qualify for a mortgage for the entire purchase price, the land trust (or a financial institution that partners with the trust) could hold a second mortgage for the remainder.
The trust would maintain ownership of the land the building sits on, but residents would own their unit and be able to build equity in it. Price controls, typically tied to inflation, are built in, so when a resident sells, the unit remains affordable to the next tenant.
“The beauty of the land trust is that it’s a public asset that's held in perpetuity,” says Laird Herbert, who sits on the board of directors. “It exists for the purpose of creating housing for the community and it’s outside the private market.”
The goal with this project is to fill the gap between social housing and market-rate homeownership—something that is getting further and further out of reach for many Whitehorse residents. Tyler Heal, the society’s treasurer-secretary, puts it bluntly: “If you want to buy a house and see it appreciate in value substantially over time, the land trust is not the thing for you.”
Your dream isn’t the same as mine
Let Indigenous governments take control of their own housing
It’s a familiar story: You go to school, get a good job, save money, build credit, and hope the bank will give you a mortgage to buy a home.
“Well, I got news for you,” says Edwin Erutse, Yamoga Land Corporation president and K'asho Got'ine Housing Society founder in Fort Good Hope, NWT. “On Indigenous land, we have a different mindset.”
Since 2016, the society has taken an active role in addressing the community’s housing crisis, opening a men’s home and starting an emergency home repair program. In 2018, the Yamoga Land Corporation purchased a sawmill so residents could harvest trees and turn them into lumber for homes. It also hired maintenance workers through a subsidiary. Erutse wants to continue training locals in construction. Recently, the federal government also approved funding for the society to hire an Indigenous architect to design homes with Fort Good Hope’s residents—and local lifestyles—in mind.
Erutse says the K'asho Got'ine First Nation’s approach to housing is needs-based rather than income-based. Leaders decide which community members get a home based on their family size and other factors. Erutse calls the whole housing initiative ‘responsible housing.’ “We believe in sweat equity. That’s how we train our young people. That's how we teach them responsibility.” If people play a role in building their own home, the thinking goes, they’ll care for it, take pride in it, want to preserve it for their kids or grandkids. This is “how we’re going to try to address this homelessness crisis that we feel we had no hand in creating,” he says.
When K'asho Got'ine finalizes its self-government negotiations, Erutse wants the society to become the K'asho Got'ine Housing Corporation. “That's where all the power is—in administration and project management,” he says. “We need to control the pen.”
Housing is just a symptom of a bigger issue
Pair housing with a range of other support programs to help people
At the root of many social problems in the North are the lingering effects of colonialism, residential schools, and the ‘60s scoop. Generations of Northerners aren’t starting off with the same privileges and financial stability as others. “I know that the reason why people struggle to be housed is because of forced settlement and the lack of housing in communities,” says Neesha Rao from the Yellowknife Women’s Society.
Federal housing policies played a key role in centralizing and settling Indigenous people in permanent communities. As the NWT’s Standing Committee on Social Development put it: “Northern community development at that time was largely informed by urban and southern Canadian models. It was thought the north could be developed to replicate and eventually be more like other urban and southern Canadian settings.”
The Canadian government’s attempts to stamp out Indigenous cultures, languages, and lifestyles often manifest today in trauma, addictions, and mental health issues. People experiencing homelessness and addictions require support to stay housed and healthy. That includes counselling for substance abuse issues, as well as help with paying rent on time, taking medication, and even getting to doctor’s appointments.
‘Housing first,’ which prioritizes moving people into stable, long-term housing before helping them back on their feet, is gaining wider acceptance. It's different from other models requiring people to be sober, for instance, to qualify for housing. Giving people a place to sleep takes away a major stressor, allowing them to start thinking about finding work or going to counselling.
There’s a range of supportive housing options across the North. The Spruce Bough in Yellowknife offers a managed alcohol program for residents. In Whitehorse, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation is working to open Sarah’s House, a permanent residence with around-the-clock support for seven residential school survivors with addictions. Several non-profits in Whitehorse take part in a program called Landlords Working to End Homelessness, which finds landlords willing to house vulnerable people and then assumes the lease and supports the tenant in whatever ways are needed.
Whitehorse non-profit Blood Ties Four Directions helped Michael Loewen find a home. Loewen had been living on the street, losing jobs due to his drinking and cycling in and out of jail. “Being able to go to a home and feel safe and choose who came and went in my home let me work on staying clean and sober,” he shared in a Yukon report on housing. He was able to hold down a job while receiving support for his impulse and anger disorders, and other underlying trauma.
He acknowledged the long road ahead. “[I’m] doing things for myself and it’s so important to have independ[ence], it makes you feel like someone and you just want more of that and the more you start to feel like [that], you have a reason to live and not just give up on yourself and everything around you.”