There are a lot of things that make a house a home.

Take the Whati Community Housing Plan, for example, the only such plan listed online with the GNWT’s Department of Housing.

The document is full of statistics: there are 121 homes, give or take, in the hamlet of about 500 people – 75 of those residences are privately owned, 27 per cent of them are mortgaged, and about 55 are rented, 40 per cent at a subsidized rate. More than half need repairs to something essential like the roof, toilet or taps.

This is all useful information but more interesting perhaps is what’s found on page 22 of 32: a 14-point list of descriptors of what a Tlicho home looks like from Elders in Gameti, population 278.

Among them: a place that is safe for Elders and young people, a place where people share food, stories and knowledge, where youth can hear Dogrib spoken, that is constructed with logs and other resources from the land, that is part of the environment.

The primary goal of the NWT Housing Corporation doesn’t really address many of those descriptions, save for those relating to having enough space for friends and extended family to occasionally use (this is called suitability, or having enough space for the number of people living there).

Under the responsibility of Housing Minister Paulie Chinna, the corporation exists in order to “ensure a sufficient supply of adequate, suitable and affordable housing to address the needs of NWT residents.”

That’s 17 words summing up possibly the most intimidating challenge facing this territory.

Chinna’s tenure as housing minister, a job as far from a cake walk as could be imagined at the best of times, has been a bumpy one. Last week, Chinna’s department was under the microscope again at the revelation that a pot of $60 million in federal cash for housing had gone untouched for two years. In order to use it, the GNWT has to identify projects and commit to shouldering 25 per cent of their cost. This is  sometimes referred to as spending “75-cent dollars.”

There’s nothing new about housing challenges in the Northwest Territories. Nor is there anything novel about the GNWT receiving and redistributing federal funding. So it is a bit puzzling that Chinna’s response in the Legislature was to announce that her goal is to hire a “co-investment project officer” before Christmas. Maybe Housing’s grant accessing expert was seconded by the Covid-19 secretariat.

But Chinna isn’t completely on an island, here. The daunting and ever-growing price tag for properly maintaining the NWTHC’s existing stock, let alone addressing the core housing need throughout the territory, is decades in the making. 

None of this even contemplates addressing the Gameti Elders’ list. They’d probably have a different definition of “adequate housing” than the NWTHC does. What’s achievable is waiting to be found somewhere on whatever common ground there is between.

So, Chinna’s offer to bring a renewed intensity to the portfolio in the new year and to keep the legislature in the loop is welcome. Likewise, her commitment to redouble her efforts to recruit community housing plans from around this vast territory is easy on the ears.

Flip to page 24 of the NWT’s Housing Strategy, released in March of this year, to find a passage that says that with maintenance costs related to its current stock of 2,400 units mounting, the NWTHC has no intention of building new units without the involvement of “Indigenous and community governments, the private sector and other partners.”

In fact, the passage refers to the $60 million “cut out” from the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation’s National Housing Strategy for the NWT: that it will be used to expand the affordable/rent-assisted stock in the Northwest Territories by 100 units, in other words adding eight per cent to the 1,156 units currently funded under a 10-year federal-territorial deal called the Social Housing Agreement.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes more than a minister to address any given community’s unique housing challenges. All we want for Christmas is a co-investment officer, but let’s make our New Year’s resolution to work together to find the complex and diverse solutions that will put more roofs over more heads in 2021.

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