HOUSING

A northern shelter crisis

SANDRA SOUCHOTTE February 4 1985
HOUSING

A northern shelter crisis

SANDRA SOUCHOTTE February 4 1985

A northern shelter crisis

HOUSING

A six-member committee of the Northwest Territories legislature visited 40 N.W.T. communi-

ties over five months last year and, on Nov. 5, delivered a devastating indictment of northern housing conditions. The interim report’s chief conclusion: from the isolated community of Cape Dorset to the capital of Yellowknife, the region is suffering from a severe shortage of public housing. As well, many of the 4,000 units (most of them small twoor three-bedroom bungalows) administered by the Northwest Territories Housing Corp. are in run-down condition. Indeed, the committee urged government to make housing its priority.

The report argued that crowded conditions, particularly among natives, who form 58 per cent of the Northwest Territories’ 48,400-member population, often cause domestic violence. In response, Gordon Wray, territorial minister in charge of public housing, has ordered the construction of 216 units of subsidized housing instead of the 62 planned for this year. But as ill-housed tenants endured another northern winter waiting for the committee’s final recommendations this spring, Wray admitted that at least 500 units of housing are urgently needed.

Most public housing tenants in the North are Indians and Inuit. That is a direct result of a 20-year-old federal practice which encouraged aboriginal northerners to abandon their nomadic way of life and move into prefabricated houses in such government-supported settlements as Pond Inlet. But the N.W.T. Housing Corp., which administers public housing units, charges rent according to tenants’ income and often collects as little as $32 per month (heat and light included) from native families. The corporation receives subsidies from the federal and territorial governments but it will spend $22 million on utilities alone for its units in the fiscal year 198586, while receiving only $4 million in rent.

As a result, the corporation is chronically short of money and last fall it asked the federal government for additional funding, which will total $12.7 million, to repair the units it now operates. Declared corporation president Victor Irving: “Whether we build 150 or 250 homes a year, our biggest problem is getting funds to maintain the houses.”

Ottawa has not replied to that request, and Irving’s corporation still must raise new houses in a region where

transportation, construction and labor costs for a two-bedroom bungalow and lot can push the price to $175,000. At the same time, the committee found that in some settlements as many as 11 people were living in two-bedroom bungalows with leaking roofs and faulty wiring, often sleeping in shifts to compensate for too few beds. For her part, Rosie Norwegian, a grandmother in Fort Norman, 600 km northwest of Yellowknife, shares her house with 10 others. Declared Norwegian: “It is not that the house is no good, but I have too many people living with me and they desperately need houses. Some of them sleep on the floor.”

Conditions are equally bad in Yellowknife, where there is a zero vacancy rate in rental units and waiting lists of up to 100 names for a single apartment are common. Despite the housing crisis, the municipal government wants to raze 10 shacks in Willow Flats, a part of the city that dates back to the gold rush days 51 years ago. City council plans to redevelop the area and remove the tenants, who include fishermen, young government employees and artists. But if the city’s plan succeeds, some of the residents of Willow Flats will find themselves in a predicament all too familiar to many northerners—sharing space in alreadycrowded housing units.

SANDRA SOUCHOTTE