Yellowknife city council is exploring whether to apply for up to $25 million in federal Rapid Housing Initiative funding that would create permanent housing in the city for those experiencing homelessness.
The project, if a Yellowknife bid were successful, could delay previously identified priorities like the city's replacement water line from the Yellowknife River, new aquatic centre, and potential expansion in Kam Lake.
“We are so very conflicted on this," said city administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett at a meeting with councillors on Monday.
Bassi-Kellett said there was "enormous benefit" in building permanent supportive housing, but City Hall had limited resources and "a couple of massive projects under way."
The N.W.T. is in a housing crisis, lacking adequate, suitable, and affordable homes across its communities.
Even in the territorial capital, a 2019 report found 29 per cent of homes were not considered affordable for residents.
The Rapid Housing Initiative offers $1 billion across the country to address urgent housing needs for vulnerable Canadians by rapidly building affordable homes.
Half of the cash is allocated to specific, larger municipalities. The other $500 million is available to other groups, ranging from Indigenous governments to smaller cities like Yellowknife.
City staff will now create a plan to bid on the funding and councillors will vote on whether or not to submit an application.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said a special meeting may be required so council can vote and the city potentially submit its application before the federal December 31 deadline.
Bassi-Kellett told council the city could look to retrofit an existing building with the money, turning it into permanent supportive housing. Once renovated, that building – a specific lot wasn't identified – could be operated by a non-governmental organization.
A modular structure could also be considered.
Bassi-Kellett added revenue from rent could cover operating costs like utilities and maintenance, and may cover some core funding for a group to run programs and pay for staffing.
A stipulation of the federal funding is the city must aim to spend any funds allotted by March 31, 2021. Housing must be available within one year of the agreement being signed.
With its scope and timeline, Bassi-Kellett told council the project would be an “ambitious undertaking” and other big projects would be set aside.
“I do need to stress that this would mean a reallocation of other priorities, so that other projects and responsibilities would not be achieved if this one came to the top of the list,” she said.
The city has since 2017 had a 10-year plan to end homelessness that states Yellowknife needs to “develop 80 new place-based units of permanent supportive housing” for people experiencing homelessness and problems with mental health, addiction, and physical health.
“One area where we do see a gap in advancing some of the priorities of our 10-year plan is around permanent supportive housing,” Bassi-Kellett said.
The Rapid Housing Initiative would help meet that need.
“It is a lot of work but it would be hard to pass up on this opportunity to hit such a milestone within the 10-year plan,” said Grant White, the city's director of community services.
Councillors Niels Konge and Robin Williams both saw the funding as a positive step and said it should be applied for without hesitation.
“The reality is if someone says, hey, there’s $25 million here to help you solve one of the biggest problems you have in your community – that becomes the priority,” Konge said.
“Here’s the long list of things that we have to do. This now gets moved up to the front, we go through the application process and then, at that point, we go back to doing what we were doing.”
Councillor Shauna Morgan was cautiously optimistic, provided the application and work is done properly.
“I don’t want us directing energy and resources down a path that is going to fall apart because we didn’t think it through, or we tried to go for a building or project that actually we don’t have any NGOs prepared to take on at the end of the day,” she said.
According to Alty, the N.W.T. government and YWCA are each planning on submitting their own applications to address other housing needs.
She told council, if approved, the YWCA’s application would address some need in Yellowknife. The GNWT's application is expected to focus on smaller, more remote communities.
Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio