Housing was top of mind for MLAs in the legislative assembly Friday, after several members brought attention to barriers in housing availability in the territory.
Paulie Chinna, Minister Responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation outlined some issues in an opening speech on the third day of the assembly’s first session of 2021.
She told MLAs that the Corporation is working on a new approach to “eliminate the requirement for land tenure and home insurance” when seeking emergency and major repair programs in remote communities.
She said the Corporation will also focus on selling detached public housing to expand homeownership to people who have lived in those homes for the long term.
And it will start a lease-to-own program beginning in the coming months.
But MLAs revealed that several problems persist despite Chinna’s plans for the next year.
Marselos worries about seniors
Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos criticized the Housing Corporations’s core need income threshold policy as unjust for seniors.
That policy uses applicants’ household income to determine who qualifies for public housing.
Martselos called the threshold a “repetitive issue” for some of her senior constituents who have applied for public housing.
As an example, she cited a couple in Fort Smith who want to move into a house more suitable to their mobility, safety and social needs as seniors. But they were deemed ineligible for the NWTHC’s senior public housing in the South Slave community because their combined income is higher than the core need income threshold.
“The NWT Housing Corporation must start accounting for clients’ age and mobility when determining their eligibility for public housing. It cannot be about income,” Martselos said.
She asked if Chinna would consider introducing a universal flat market rental rate for seniors who apply for public housing, regardless of income.
Chinna acknowledged that her department has heard many concerns about the income threshold, which she said was last updated in 2015.
She said the corporation charges 30 per cent of the tenant’s annual income, the lowest rate in Canada while balancing cost of living in the NWT with the territory’s needs.
“We do try to work very effectively with our residents throughout the territory to making sure that our program is affordable and it meets the needs of the people of the NWT,” Chinna said.
She agreed to review the policy over the income threshold, adding that the needs for seniors have changed significantly over the past 20 years.
Chinna said she recognizes the many needs of NWT residents such as single parents, people fighting addictions and low-income earners. But she didn’t commit to bringing in a flat market rental rate for seniors.
Pooly insulated housing poses danger in Nunakput
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said there is a housing shortage in Paulatuk. He said residents living in overcrowded conditions in poorly-insulated homes make Covid-19 a greater risk.
He said he’s written to Chinna about one person in particular who he is trying to find housing for.
“If there’s a house available for that, is he eligible to go into and to use that unit?” Jacobson asked. Will people be able to go into that unit to stay warm because it’s -40 C or -50 C back home, and it’s really needed.”
He also explained that adequate housing is needed to attract teachers and other professionals to come and work in the Arctic community of about 320 people.
Chinna said the NWTHC last year set aside several houses in NWT communities in case of Covid-19 outbreaks. She didn’t clarify if those could also be used to meet additional housing needs in communities.
She said she would follow up with Jacobson on what is available in the community and the status of the waitlist for housing there.
O’Reilly on housing insurance
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly took issue with another aspect of housing in the NWT: home insurance.
He pointed back to Chinna’s opening statement in which she stated that home insurance is a barrier to ownership.
O’Reilly then related his own story about Aviva Canada cancelling his home insurance “after five claim-free years simply because we put in a wood-pellet boiler system five years ago.”
His broker resolved the issue, although at a 40 per cent premium increase, he said.
“As bad as it may be in Yellowknife, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for homeowners in small communities to obtain insurance,” O’Reilly said.
He pressed Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek on what the GNWT is doing to ensure that homeowners can obtain affordable insurance. The Frame Lake MLA also asked if she would speak with the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Corporation about possible coverage in the NWT. He said that agency already offers coverage in several other Canadian jurisdictions.
Wawzonek responded saying it’s an option her department can explore.
Friday’s exchanges on housing come just a day after Wawzonek released the territorial budget for 2021. It allocated $5 million to help the NWT participate in the National Housing Co-Investment Fund.
That program allows housing projects to be funded jointly by the federal government and GNWT, with the federal side contributing most of the funding if both sides reach agreement on a project.