When Justine Okheena brought her newborn baby home to Ulukhaktok last November, the child caught sick in a public housing unit.
The newborn had a runny nose, a cough, and a cold. Okheena suspected the symptoms were the result of the mould lacing a wall in her home. Because water seeped in and soaked the wall each spring, the wall was rotten with it. Now it appeared to be the cause of her newborn’s sickness.
Concerned, she took her baby to a rotating series of nurses.
“It’s normal. She’ll get good,” Okheena recalled the nurses saying. “They didn’t do anything about my baby having the cold, or the mould in the house. They just said, ‘it’s normal, she’ll get over it.’”
The baby didn’t recover for months, she said. Checkups, and requests for repairs to her home all came to nothing. It was “frustrating,” Okheena said.
In a community where about 36 per cent of the housing was in need of repairs in 2019, according to NWT Bureau of Statistics, she was only one of many tenants struggling with her public housing unit.
Housing needs aren’t met, MLA says
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson shared the frustration.
“There’s so many needs and wants, but there’s nothing to be addressed,” he said in an interview.
A planned tour of his constituency with Housing Minister Paulie Chinna was recently postponed to the summer, and he has since grown impatient with the slow pace of action.
In August, in another recent statement, Mayor Laverna Klengenberg wrote a public letter grilling the NWT Housing Corporation over long standing poor housing in her community.
“What are we getting?” she told NNSL Media at the time. “Are they going to fix up the aging units that people have to live with? Why aren’t we getting a fair shake at whatever we should be getting?”
Family inappropriately housed, mother says
Last year, the NWT Bureau of Statistics reported that about 10 per cent of housing in the community isn’t considered affordable. Another 10 per cent of units aren’t considered suitable, meaning the number of occupants in relationship to the number of bedrooms isn’t appropriate.
Okheena described the concerns of another resident who noticed there may be too few occupants in one unit, relative to bedrooms, and too many in another.
In a statement, NWT Housing Corporation spokesperson Cara Bryant said local housing organizations (LHOs) allocate units based on national occupancy standards.
“Depending on the availability of units, some tenants may be under-accommodated or over-accommodated for periods of time. It is common for LHOs to transfer tenants into appropriate sized units to meet this standard,” she wrote.
Okheena considers her family inappropriately housed. For six people at home, there are three bedrooms, each one the size of a small porch with little room for storage, she said.
Repair crews not to blame, says resident and MLA
Okheena, whose four children are all under the age of seven, said the building itself had serious issues.
Her front door, for one, constantly freezes shut, forcing Okheena to hit it hard and play with the handle to open it. Her windows ice up in a similar fashion.
Long term fixes are tough to come by. When Okheena pointed out the mouldy window she believes contributed to her baby’s illness to a maintenance crew, they changed the window but never finished the job, leaving insulation exposed.
Other repairs saw her wall wiped down with Javex, with the mould lingering underneath.
She also informed housing surveyors her roof was leaking, and they agreed, but nothing was done, she said.
Meanwhile, the aging floor tiles break and the old vent covers won’t stay on. It makes her worried for the well-being of her child.
Crystal Ethna Kongayona, another resident, doesn’t blame the local housing organization, which employs two administrative and three maintenance staff.
“They do what they can to help,” she said. “(It has to) be tough doing one thing after another sometimes, no time for themselves.”
The local housing organization needs more funding to add more workers, and the current ones should be more appreciated, she said, acknowledging the tenants’ frustration.
Bryant said there were no plans to employ more staff, and that current levels are consistent with other local housing organizations in the area.
NWT Housing Corporation wasn’t aware of any backlog in maintenance work, she wrote, and added that local staff were capable of identifying mould and remediating some types.
For other types of mould, housing corp. can hire a contractor to address the issue, she wrote, adding that tenants “can also raise their concerns at regular monthly meetings of LHOs.”
Jacobson, meanwhile, attributed the repair shortfall to poor planning.
“If they have (the materials), they’ll fix it. If they don’t, they can’t. I’m not blaming nobody. It’s just poor planning,” he said.
‘Every year, it’s windows and doors’
Jacobson wants operations and maintenance funding increased, and has additionally considered floating a policy to halt evictions during the winter months to avoid leaving residents out in the cold.
The challenges facing housing in the area have been relatively consistent, he said.
“Every year, it’s windows and doors. You’re changing windows, doors, sewage tanks and fuel tanks. That’s the biggest thing (for) housing up here. The funding is not there to do the maintenance in regards to the mould issues that we have up here,” he said.
On average, NWT spends about $22,500 on maintenance per public housing units, according to Premier Caroline Cochrane’s comments in the legislative assembly on Feb. 11. Those costs also contribute to the territorial government is avoiding building up its public housing stock.
Waiting for repairs, Okheena has other concerns — a $200 power bill, expensive diapers and milk. She wants all the prices that contribute to her high cost of living to drop. The expenses are simply too much of a strain.
“It’s kind of hard when you’re having a newborn,” she said.