Arrears impede access to housing — and cause worry — say Behchokǫ̀ residents

·4 min read
Nora Wedzin, a Behchokǫ̀ resident, called on the standing committee on social development to stop talking and to take action on housing issues in the territory. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)
Nora Wedzin, a Behchokǫ̀ resident, called on the standing committee on social development to stop talking and to take action on housing issues in the territory. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)

Nick Football, an elder living in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., says his monthly pension barely covers his rent and utilities each month.

"If I run out of food next week, I have to set a snare in order for me to eat. To me, that's not right," he told a group of regular MLAs on Monday evening in his language, Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì.

Football also said his arrears continue to grow — but his pension does not.

"I don't know what to do at this time. I feel hopeless sometimes. I may be homeless, I may be roaming from house to house. I may be out in the streets, sleeping on the cement. You never know."

Football was one of about a dozen residents who addressed the territory's standing committee on social development in Behchokǫ̀. The public hearing was the third organized by the committee  — the other two took place in Inuvik and Fort Good Hope — to hear from people about housing and homelessness prevention.

The committee also spoke to youth in Yellowknife, organized a days-long, territory-wide phone call, and put together an online survey to engage people on the issue. There was also a weather-delayed attempt to travel to Paulatuk — all in hopes of gathering information before making recommendations to the Legislative Assembly this fall.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

Back in the spring, there were 849 names on a waitlist for public housing in the N.W.T. The vast majority at the time (501) were people waiting for a one-bedroom place. There are 2,600 public housing units throughout the territory — but most are decades old. Some suffer environmental damage, like erosion or mould. Many are also overcrowded.

Rental arrears were one of the common themes of the evening, with one elder questioning why her debt to Housing NWT had grown to $33,000, and one homeless couple wishing theirs would be forgiven so they could have a second chance at a public housing unit.

Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake and the committee's chair, told CBC News after the meeting that she'd heard from elders who had amassed five- and even six-figure rental arrears. "How did we get here? How are we expecting people to be able to live their lives … when they're weighed down by these massive arrears?"

Some residents also drew attention to long overdue repairs needed in their homes.

Louis Flunky, an elder, said he approached the committee in a calm and humble manner as he asked — for the last time — for years-old fire damage in his rental unit to be repaired.

"If you leave without answering any of my questions, I may move out and put a wall tent somewhere," he said, adding that he would be "very thankful" for the support.

Jackson Lafferty, the Tłı̨chǫ grand chief, touted the Tłı̨chǫ government's plans to spend $42 million it had received from the federal government for housing. The multi-year funding has been used, since May 2020, to add a total of 60 new housing units in Tłı̨chǫ communities by next April.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

He also asked the territory to partner with the Tłı̨chǫ government to build a bigger shelter in Behchokǫ̀.

Resident Nora Wedzin pointed out, as did at least one other person, that Paulie Chinna, the territory's housing minister, wasn't present for the meeting. Wedzin also called on the committee to stop talking about housing and to take action on it.

Wedzin described problems of nepotism, said Housing NWT was poorly managed, and that people in Behchokǫ̀ didn't know which housing offices (local, regional, or in Yellowknife) to hold accountable for their needs.

"We've heard a lot about transparency, whether it was transparency in how programs work or transparency in programs that exist," said Cleveland.

She said people in the N.W.T. have also described income thresholds and access to repair programs as barriers to housing, and she said there needs to be a "shift in the mindset" of how policies are set up and upheld.

"The biggest thing we'd like to see out of this is some real policy changes that help people stay housed," Wedzin said.