Despite housing crisis, one in five N.L. government units vacant in northern Labrador

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Despite homelessness and overcrowding described as a crisis in Labrador, one in five provincial government-run housing units in the region's Inuit communities are sitting empty and awaiting repairs.

Some units have been vacant for nearly three years, according to numbers provided by the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation.

The provincial government says it's working to get the homes fixed, but people on the ground say the wait is causing harm.

"It means young families, victims of violence, people experiencing homelessness aren't given the chance to thrive and to move forward with their life," said Nicole Dicker, the executive director of the transition house in Nain, where eight of 34 units are vacant.

Meanwhile, a long-standing housing shortage in the community has forced many families to cram several generations into homes built for four or five people, she said, while those without a place to live sleep on couches and floors.

In the community of about 1,125 people, those eight units would provide a lot of relief, Dicker said in an interview Thursday. "We all know someone who could use an apartment," she added.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation operates 56 housing units in the communities of Nain, Hopedale and Makkovik, spokeswoman Jenny Bowring said in a recent email.

Twelve are empty and in need of repairs, she said. Eleven need major repairs and one needs minor work and will be fixed "in the near term." Eight empty units are in Nain and the other four are in Hopedale, a town of about 575 people.

All but one have been vacant for more than a year, she said, and four have been empty for nearly three years.

Money is available to fix them all, but the agency is having trouble finding contractors to do the work, Bowring said. Contractors are being hired now to fix two units needing major work, she said, but a recent call for tenders for the other nine units was "unsuccessful."

That doesn't surprise Joe Dicker, the AngajukKak, or mayor, of Nain's local Inuit government.

North coast towns like Nain and Hopedale are accessible by plane or ferry, and the ferry only runs for about half the year when there isn't much sea ice, he said. The ferry is cheaper, which means there's a short window to ship in the lumber and complete the work, he said in a recent interview. The government should have a maintenance person in town and somewhere to store supplies, he said.

The mayor said the housing shortage in Nain reached a crisis point years ago. The overcrowding puts people at a higher risk of diseases like tuberculosis, he said, which killed a 14-year-old boy in the community in 2018.

Lela Evans, the NDP's elected member for the region, is also calling on the government to ensure the units are regularly repaired and don't sit empty. She tabled a petition from local residents in the provincial legislatureApril 13 asking for a plan.

"It's quite unacceptable to have one-fifth of the units be vacant," Evans said in a recent interview. "They've got to have some way to have the repairs done year-round."

John Abbott, the minister responsible for the province's housing corporation, agrees the homes have been sitting empty for too long, but he said because of the relatively small number of units it's not feasible to have someone on staff in the communities to perform the repairs.

The government will put out another call for contractors in the coming weeks, Abbott said in an interview. If it's not successful, officials will try again, maybe adjusting the pay to make the bid more appealing, he said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated delays.

"We have a plan and the budgets and everything in place to make sure they're done this year," Abbott said. "I'm certainly committed to having it done this year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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