Friday, 25 November 2011

New Report Paints Grim Picture of Public Housing in the NWT

CBC Special Report, Thursday, November 24, 2011, 7:15 a.m.

JOSLYN OOSENBRUG, CBC: Now there are about 2,500 public housing units across the Northwest Territories. Many of them are in desperate need of repair and so the waiting list for housing keeps getting longer. Now new research out of Carlton University shows the housing situation is only going to get worse unless there are some drastic changes to the system. Nick Falvo is the lead researcher on the study that was published in this year's edition of How Ottawa Spends, released by Carlton University's School of Public Policy and Administration. Falvo teamed up with the Centre of Northern Families' Arlene Hache to take a closer look at the state of public housing here in the Northwest Territories and both Arlene and Nick join me this morning in studio to go over some of the details. Good morning to you both.

FALVO: Good morning.

HACHE: Good morning.

CBC: So, Arlene, let's start with you. You approached Nick right, to do this research? Why did you want to take a closer look at public housing here in the North?

HACHE: From our perspective public housing is the number one issue in terms of how families and people are directly impacted around homelessness and of family breakdown and people giving their children to child welfare because they can't even keep a home. So we were really interested in partnering with the Carlton University to take a more in-depth look at the history of housing in the Northwest Territories, where the resources are, who should be contributing and of course the federal government is on their way out of giving any money to the Northwest Territories. So we wanted to really lay the foundation for the GNWT to be able to persuade the federal government to stay committed to housing in the North, and we wanted to also look at the policies of the GNWT and barriers that are there in terms of people keeping their house or getting into housing, and that's another sort of big unanswered question.

CBC: So, Nick, can you paint us a bit of a picture? What is the picture of public housing here in the Northwest Territories?

FALVO: Well the picture of public housing here is a bit like housing in the rest of Canada, but there's a very important difference and that is that in the North it is very expensive to build and maintain housing and there are three main reasons for that. One is that there is a considerable amount of poverty, especially in small communities. Second, building costs are higher in the North, especially on the Arctic Coast. Third, utility costs are considerably higher in the Northwest Territories than in the rest of Canada. So for all three of those reasons it is quite expensive to build and maintain a unit in the North. So the role of the federal government is very important in terms of social housing nationally, but it is especially important in the North largely because of those cost factors.

CBC: And why are we hearing that so many of the public housing units here are in such poor condition?

FALVO: I think a key reason is the ongoing cost involved. So, for example, when public housing is built in the Northwest Territories there are capital costs, but after the capital costs are factored in there's still about 15 to $20,000 a year needed by the government to maintain that unit, to pay for things like utility costs and it's an expensive undertaking, households are stretched far more here than in the rest of Canada. So one of the factors is that when something needs to be fixed it is expensive to fix it and there's a real cost issue involved there.

CBC: And does that mean that our more remote communities are in a tougher spot?

FALVO: Absolutely. The research finds that when it comes to households living in crowded conditions and households living in houses that need major repairs, the smaller communities are hit much harder than the regional centres and even the regional centres are hit more than most parts of Canada.

CBC: And, Arlene, what about in terms of accessibility to housing? You said that was one of the other elements that you looked at is the access that people have to the public housing system. What did you find?

HACHE: We find that there are specific policies in place that prevent people from getting into housing or maintaining housing. One of the policies, for example, is if you owe money to any housing authority you can't get into any housing in small communities because it's all controlled by the housing authorities. So some of the debt that's owed is as a result of damage that was done to units in spousal violent relationship. So that debt is carried for 20 or 30 years and that person is never able to get back into housing. So we wanted to look at some of the ways that we can shift those policies a little bit so that we can, you know, really take a look at the prevention of evictions from low cost housing.

CBC: Now in terms of the federal government's role, the government has cost sharing agreements with the Northwest Territories and over the last five years or so we see more federal funding go to the North towards housing. So why isn't this enough?

HACHE: I think that that commitment by the federal government in terms of finances to the North for housing was significant, but not nearly enough either to even begin to scratch what we need in the Northwest Territories. The other thing is the territorial government has, more than any other province or territory, really committed dollars to housing. So our own territorial government has shown that kind of commitment. So that's pretty impressive to me. I'm not so impressed about the policy type things, but in terms of real commitment around housing, they've been there and more recently they've really tried to take homeownership units that didn't work out and really struggled to make that subsidized housing and they've told us that those units are full or will be full really soon. So from what I can tell the GNWT is maxing the most that they can, making sure people are in housing. So that's great, but it doesn't change the fact that we have major issues around people not being able to find a house.

CBC: Nick, how big is that gap between what the territorial government needs in order to be able to provide housing for people and what is actually there?

FALVO: Well I'll put it this way, traditionally in Canada you've got the federal government leading social housing and this started in earnest in the early 1960s and generally the federal government would spend at least 50 percent of the costs involved in housing and often substantially more. This is across the provinces and territories. It stopped announcing new ongoing funding for social housing in the early 1990s and some of these more recent announcements, they're one-off announcements, they represent substantial amounts on an annual basis, but they're one-off and they're not putting in place a permanent program. So now we've got these operating agreements that have been in place for decades that are starting to sunset and by 2038, as I'm sure you're aware, these run out completely. So right now each housing unit that exists is in need of about 15 to $20,000 a year a public housing unit to an operation and maintenance. When the federal contribution runs out and they run out on different agreements every year, that unit is very vulnerable. They're vulnerable all across Canada, but especially in the North where the federal commitment is that much more important.

CBC: Now I'm wondering, the Northwest Territories government is trying to get out of providing public housing and they're trying to move away from that and move into home ownership. So is that part of the solution?

HACHE: I think it's a part of the solution, but it's unrealistic because unemployment and poverty in the communities is a huge factor and there's really no evidence that the resources are there or the support is there for people to succeed in homeownership. So a part of the question for me is looking at did homeownership in the communities succeed and if it didn't why didn't it and there's a number of people that just could not manage financially, you know, maintaining their home and looking after the monthly operations of the home. So I think it's simplistic and not wise to just focus on homeownership. So that's a fairly frightening prospect when you're looking at the fact that people don't have jobs and how can they own their own home then, and if you look at, you know, the situation in Yellowknife, the homeownership concept in Yellowknife didn't even operate because you really couldn't buy a home for the cap that they were giving you. So having programs available and whether or not it actually works is a totally different question.

CBC: So, Arlene, what do you see as a solution or a part of the solution for this dilemma?

HACHE: Well I think that that's why we wanted to partner so desperately with Carlton University to really take an in-depth look at that so we don't get lost in really simple talk about what the solutions are. I think that it's a very complex situation. I'm interested in looking at a process whereby we can look at the debt people have in housing and take a look at maybe a system where women who have experienced violence and the debt is related to that, have that debt weighed. They do wave huge amounts of money in my view for business enterprises that go down the toilet, but they don't do that for people who owe amounts of money for housing. So I want to look at a range of things and I'm hoping Carlton University can help us really drill down into what the real solutions will be. They did come up with some recommendations.

CBC: Okay and, Nick, we've just got a couple of seconds, but if you can just tell us briefly what some of the things are that our government can look at?

FALVO: I think for one thing it's absolutely crucial that the federal government step up and recommit to housing. This is not the time for the federal government to be moving back and allowing agreements to expire. It's the time for them to be recommitting, but also homelessness is primarily a territorial responsibility and last spring in May Arlene and I released a research accord looking at homelessness, focusing on Yellowknife as a case study, but making recommendations for the Territory as a whole. Those recommendations have not been acted on and we're looking to the Government of the Northwest Territories to act on those. Men at the emergency shelter in Yellowknife still sleep one foot apart from each other every night at the same shelter where there was a tuberculosis outbreak just a few years ago. So we'd like to see the Government of the Northwest Territories act on that.

CBC: It's a huge scope of a problem. So I look forward to a lot more discussion on this in the future. Thanks to both of you for being here.

HACHE: Thank you.

FALVO: Thank you.

CBC: And that's Nick Falvo and Arlene Hache. They're the authors of a new paper on public housing in the Northwest Territories that's going to be officially released at noon today. It's published in this year's edition of How Ottawa Spends, a publication of the Carlton University's School of Public Policy and Administration.
CBC News
November 24, 2011
Yellowknife, NWT, Canada

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