'This helps, but I don't know if it's going to help enough.'

NEU boss scoffs at GN housing gesture


The Government of Nunavut's partial reversal of its much-hated housing policy is good news, says the Nunavut Employees Union, but it's probably still not enough to keep skilled workers in the territory.

"This helps," said NEU President Doug Workman, "but I don't know if it's going to help enough."

"It is a positive gesture. I have to acknowledge that."

Staff housing rents have soared since January, 2006, when the Government of Nunavut started its plan to cut subsidies until rents reach market value, either by 2010 or 2015, depending on the community.

Rents rose the most in regional hubs. Territorial employees in Cambridge Bay, Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit began paying 20 per cent more in rent this January.

Facing widespread anger among employees who are paying thousands more each year in rent, and a union that is conducting a strike vote, the government offered a concession in the 2008 budget, announced Feb. 20.

Staff housing rents would drop in April to January, 2007 levels, while homeowners and employees who rent on the private market would receive a $400 a month allowance, if the budget passes.

Rents will likely remain frozen at these new levels until at least after the next territorial election, said Louis Tapardjuk, the finance minister, on Feb. 21.

Workman says these concessions must be included in a new collective agreement. "Just because it's in the budget this year, doesn't mean it'll be there one year from now," he said.

Collective bargaining is at a stand-still as both parties choose a mediator, and Workman is touring the territory to stir up enthusiasm among GN workers for the upcoming strike vote, which is expected to take place in mid-March.

The housing concessions, which address one of the biggest sources of resentment among GN workers, may steal some of Workman's wind.

But he, for one, is still able to rail against the policy with much enthusiasm.

He says if he ran the government, he would fire everyone involved in drafting the housing policy, and boot the minister involved from cabinet.

He also heaps blame at the feet of the president of the Nunavut Housing Corp, who, as a long-time northern resident, Workman says "should have known better" than support the policy.

"It's shameful," he said. "It's actually hurt Nunavut, and the Government of Nunavut, and the public service."

The housing policy was based on the optimistic theory that, if government stopped subsidizing rent, its employees, these workers would go out, buy homes, and help kick-start an actual housing market for Nunavut. But there's little sign that's happened.

Workman says it was naive for the government to assume it could pull out of the housing game so quickly, given the long history of governments in the North helping their employees cover the high cost of living.

"You're dreaming in Technicolor. It just hasn't happened," he said.

Meanwhile, Workman said the policy has had the opposite of the intended effect: by giving employees more reasons to leave the territory, it has created more uncertainty in the market, which may make it more difficult for homeowners to sell houses purchased several years ago at high prices – it's not uncommon to see a home in Iqaluit selling for $400,000.

He adds that the concessions are nothing like the good old days, when governments spent more on accommodations and travel assistance for employees.

He remembers how, in the early 1980s, the Government of the Northwest Territories offered homeowners an allowance of $450 a month – a bigger perk than is being offered today.

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