One small step for affordable housing

Volunteer effort to boost Iqaluit homeownership



After a decade of false starts, a small group of housing activists in Iqaluit are gearing up to make someone’s dream of owning a house in Iqaluit come true.

The group, soon to be Iqaluit’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity Canada, a non-profit housing organization, has been planning to make housing more accessible to Iqaluit residents who normally can’t afford down payments or mortgages.

“We want [to help] people who don’t have a house, in overcrowded situations, and economically couldn’t afford to purchase a house of their own,” said Pierre Chartrand, an accountant for Nunavut’s department of Justice and a member of the group.

“If you can’t afford it [buying a house] without the challenge of saving up, or in-laws lending you money, or getting a windfall, this is the approach for a lot of people.”

Pending last-minute approval from Habitat from Humanity Canada’s national office, the Iqaluit chapter will begin hunting for the ideal family or person in need, who, among other requirements, will be willing and able to put hundreds of hours of effort, or “sweat equity” into the project.

However, unlike the South, where the chosen homeowners have to put in hundreds of hours of labour to be eligible for the house, Iqaluit’s “sweat equity” will also come from hours of studying the skills required to own a home, such as how to process mortgage payments and bills for repairs.

Iqaluit’s unique approach to the sweat equity aspect of the project recognizes that the construction season is shorter than the South, where families and their friends have more time to volunteer their help in building the home.

But Pam Hine, past president of the Nunavut Housing Corporation and one of the group’s main organizers, said training the future homeowners in how to do their own paperwork and arranging house repairs also fits with the spirit of Nunavut.

“We don’t only want them to be homeowners, but we want them to be successful,” she said. “Self-reliance is one of the key components of why Nunavut exists.”

Hine added that Inuktitut translators will be available for the training.

Hine admitted the project won’t spawn a new generation of Iqaluit home owners overnight. The group hopes to build two three-bedroom houses in the summer of 2005, and one of their biggest challenges will be raising the funds to support the project.

Although members said it’s too early to estimate how much each house will cost the owner, they know expenses will run around $500,000, the average cost of building two modest houses in Iqaluit.

However, Hine said the new homeowners can look forward to paying a mortgage that reflects their income. This means the smaller the paycheque, the smaller the cost of the house will be.

The homeowners will also have the advantage of paying their mortgage to Habitat for Humanity, interest-free. The group will then save the mortgage payments to pay for the next housing project.

The group has started brainstorming on how to finance the project and find the expertise to supervise construction. So far, members talked about lobbying construction companies to provide materials at reduced prices, in exchange for showchasing the firm’s latest products.

They’re also eyeing a program run by the international office of Habitat for Humanity, which helps find specialized construction workers willing to vacation in remote areas at their own expense, and work for free.

While government authorities estimate that Iqaluit needs hundreds of new housing units immediately, Hine defended the group’s small-scale approach.

“The government’s not going to be able to solve the housing problem on their own,” said Hine, who is also Nunavut’s deputy minister of education. “So we need to look for other options. Everything we can do to add another few units is an accomplishment.”

And even though the group plans to build cheap houses, members say the chosen families can look forward to high-quality housing, with the added bonus of future savings.

Tim MacLeod, a senior architect for the government of Nunavut, is helping design houses that are as energy-efficient as possibly. That way, he said, homeowners can also look forward to “drastically” reduced heating bills.

But for MacLeod, the project will build more than houses. He said the group’s volunteer approach will also make Iqaluit a more “solid” community.

“When you have a house, you care more about the community, you’re not as transient,” he said. “You have a stake in the community.”

For more information about the group’s activities, call Pam Hine at 979-2057, or Susan Spring at 979-5301.

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