Our Home: The high cost, low return of public housing

Elder Helen Iguptak had frosted windows, jammed doors, and mould in her public housing units. To solve this, her late husband elder Jackie Iguptak had drilled holes about five centimetres in diameter above their door to replace what was known to them as a “mould thingamajig,” creating better airflow.

The couple had lived nearly 35 years in their Rankin Inlet house, courtesy of the Homeownership Assistance Program, or HAP for short. Then in 2016 when Iguptak retired from teaching and her husband from his job as a janitor at the Northern, they realized the cost of home ownership would be too great.

“By the time every bill was taken care of, we only had enough money for one weekend. We had to eat scraps,” Iguptak says, chuckling at the memory, shaking her head at the reality. “If I ever get kicked out [now], I’ll build my own igloo outside in the snowbanks … free of charge!”

Helen Iguptak points to the “mould thingamajig” in her laundry room that she insists doesn’t work — or, at least, not as well as poking your own holes. The exhaust fan is located in her laundry room, where the door can’t shut because of where the washing machines are placed. (Photo by David Venn)

They paid off their mortgage and moved into the public housing system to receive Nunavut Housing Corp.’s free rent subsidy for elders.

Days spent in the HAP house were stable. Air circulated well and no mould grew because they had a chimney. The only time the house needed repairs or renovations was when her four children had grown older and the family needed more space.

Then, between 2016 and the fall of 2022, the Iguptaks moved into four different public housing units.

The first was a one-bedroom unit. Iguptak slept on a double bed, her daughter on a foam bed at the foot of the double, and her husband split time between the cabin and the laundry room.

Helen Iguptak’s current public housing unit, she says, is in need of repairs. The windows and doors get stuck, and her daughter suspects there’s mould growing. (Photo by David Venn)

They then moved into a two-bedroom in the hamlet’s Area 6. Mould began to grow and Iguptak’s husband put holes in the wall, simulating a chimney to de-ice the windows and door. She says it got so cold in the winter that they had to wear snowpants inside.

Iguptak, 71, now houses her daughter and two of her grandchildren. They are looking for a three- or four-bedroom unit so the family can all be together.

In the meantime, she says, the unit “needs a renovation big time” — the doorframe, windows, porch — but the housing authority hasn’t come around to fix it. “It’s a long waiting game,” she says. “You keep calling them and nobody shows up.”

The Nunavut Housing Corp. supplies 5,955 public housing units in the territory for an estimated 22,831 occupants.

It spent $224.4 million on public housing in the 2022 fiscal year for maintenance, utilities and other expenses, but only made back $17.49 million, or 7.8 per cent, of that cost through rent payments. More than $35 million was spent last year on maintenance alone.

Iguptak’s odyssey in public housing is representative of many Nunavummiut’s experiences: overcrowding, mould, wait-lists and lack of repairs.

Some say that Nunavummiut building their own homes often means better quality, and a return to HAP could help mitigate many public housing issues, taking pressure off NHC to house nearly two-thirds of the territory’s residents.

AFTER FINISHING A DAY of teaching carpentry at Tuugaalik High School, Naujaat elder Gabe Kaunak sits at his kitchen table over a cup of black tea. He recalls the days when many Inuit built their homes through government programs such as HAP and other contracts. He himself used to be a partner in a small business that built homes in Naujaat.

Before Kaunak was a teacher, he was a maintenance worker at the local housing authority for 24 years. He says public housing Inuit built are better quality than other public housing. And yet it costs the government much more today than it did when Inuit were building homes.

“At that time we were contracting, we were trying to prove to people in town that Inuit can work on their own, without the help, without getting anybody in,” Kaunak says, adding jovially that the biggest problem he faced was finding an electrician.

HAP should be brought back, he says, as well as more contract work for Inuit-owned small businesses. “Our houses are still good, the ones we built,” he says. “We didn’t rush and we didn’t hide anything.”

Naujaat elder Gabe Kaunak sits on his favourite spot on his couch after a day of teaching at Tuugaalik High School. (Photo by David Venn)

In 2021, former Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq produced a report on housing. She visited five communities, including 10 homes in Naujaat. Each was mouldy and overcrowded, with one four-bedroom unit reportedly housing 14 people.

More than 80 per cent of the nearly 1,100 people living in Naujaat are under the age of 40, and 130 residents are on the waitlist for one of the community’s 205 public housing units — 115 of which have been deemed as poor quality, according to a Statistics Canada report.

Nunavummiut attribute the dire condition of these units to different causes. One is a lack of care and attention by southern construction companies in their work, which Clarence Synard, chief executive officer of NCC Investment Group Inc., says he would agree “100 per cent” with.

“A lot of companies — not all — a lot of companies, though, are just driven on that bottom line,” he says. “‘Let’s get this job done. Let’s get out. Let’s make our money.’

“Whereas when I see a company like NCC plus other northerly-owned and operated companies, who — no matter how this year goes — they’re going to be here next year and the year after and the year after … and they realize the importance of those buildings.”

Synard has seen the same things that some Inuit have: for example, companies closing up worksites when there’s still moisture trapped inside, causing problems that come out years later.

Tradespeople work on a multiplex in Rankin Inlet in November 2022. (Photo by David Venn)

He says there’s an unwritten “Nunavut code,” which entails a checklist of housing needs beyond what is called for in the national code, such as having an airlock, secondary exit and cold porch. He often wishes engineers worked in the North so they could see how practical their designs are.

“Some of the minimums within the national building code just aren’t enough for up here,” Synard says. “They’re OK, but they’re not enough.”

In 2019 — prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — public housing cost $683,750 per unit to build. In the 2022 fiscal year, Nunavut Housing Corp. built 175 public housing units at an average price of $923,447 each, costing more than $161.6 million in total.

This does not include administration costs over the life of a unit.

In comparison, the NWT Housing Corp. approved 329 HAP houses between 1981 and 1986, according to government documents. It’s unclear how many of these are in Nunavut communities. However, each house above the treeline cost an average of $49,000, or approximately $117,000 when adjusted for inflation in 2022, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator.

HAP proved to be a cheaper option for the government to supply housing for its residents. Potentially, if it was brought back in some form it could save the government enough money to, in turn, partially fund construction of more public housing units.

Synard believes HAP could and should be brought back today. But it’s important to note it cannot be the only solution to Nunavut’s housing crisis, just one part of it.

“If anybody’s out looking for one clear solution to addressing housing issues in the North, they’re going to become very disappointed,” he says. “There’s many different avenues to resolving this.”

Eiryn Devereaux, Nunavut Housing Corp.’s chief executive officer and president, says the corporation’s public housing meets the national building code and best practices in Nunavut.

He says it isn’t always the weather, the design or construction that causes mould to grow in public housing units: it’s that some units are three or four decades old and people living in them sometimes cause damage by physically breaking things or turning off exhaust fans because they don’t like the noise.

“For any kind of contemplation, at all, that we’re building crap or garbage, is really, it’s just an uniformed consideration,” Devereaux says, adding NHC holds workshops in communities to educate people on maintenance, and wants to hold more of them.

This is a row of new fiveplexes in Naujaat, which Mayor Alan Robinson says cost $3 million each. He says the contractor did a great job building them and no one in the community has complained. (Photo by David Venn)

He says if people build their own houses, they’re much more likely to take care of them. “They have that connection, they’re going to maintain that home and they’re going to pay attention to things during construction,” Devereaux says.

He adds that if more Inuit were trained and working for contractors, NHC could see a five to 10 per cent price reduction for building public housing.

Martha Hickes, a Rankin Inlet elder and HAP house owner, takes great pride in the condition of her house and being “the driving force of maintaining the unit” over her three decades of ownership. She says when her children were growing up, they weren’t allowed to touch the walls, “not allowed to do any wrecking, nothing. And I used to wax my floors.”

It’s a trait representative of most HAP owners, as one report states that 60 per cent of HAP owners cleaned their homes daily, 20 per cent did alright at maintaining, and 20 per cent didn’t do well.

The ability to be a homeowner has also been proven to help move people out of public housing — out of NHC’s responsibility — as some residents would rather live in a HAP house than public units if given the opportunity.

Susan Hickes, Martha’s daughter, has lived in a five-unit public housing complex in Rankin Inlet with her family since 2009. In the years since, the unit has begun sloping, had multiple glycol leaks, and her clothes dryer gets filled with snow every year and her laundry room covered in frost.

Last fall, her five-year-old son was sick for three months with a cough, runny nose and fever. She believes it was caused by the mould that’s built up in her bathroom since a pipe burst six years ago from being exposed to the Kivalliq winter’s north wind.

Every spring and summer, when it warms up, a “sour, ugly” smell wafts from the bathroom into the rest of the home.

Susan says NHC has never fixed the floors, only removed the insulation to dry for a season.

“When I’m out of town, I wake up normal. And then as soon as I come home, I’m back to my constant daily headaches from all the mould in our unit, which causes stress on my job, stress on my family,” Susan says. “My special leave is gone from taking care of my son.”

She aspires to own a home and says not only would HAP help long-term tenants become homeowners, it would also open up public housing spaces for those who need it, easing overcrowding.

“We’re so tired of living in the small space,” she says.

Eight per cent of social housing tenants who disclose their salary earn more than $60,000 per year, and five per cent of them make $80,000 or more annually, according to NHC’s 2022 fiscal year report.

Devereaux says the system is “over-stressed,” with people who don’t have other options taking up spots for those who earn less.

Nunavut has 3,000 people on the waitlist for social housing, he says, and some might believe that means the territory needs the same amount of new public housing units to meet the demand. But if the option were available, Nunavummiut like Susan and her family would move on to home ownership, freeing up space for others to move into public housing.

“If there was more affordable housing supply…” Devereaux says, “literally hundreds of hundreds of people that are currently in public housing [would] make a transition into affordable, rental housing or affordable home ownership units.”

David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News