Our Home: The high cost, low return of public housing

Part 2: HAP could help solve the ‘long waiting game’ of life in public housing

Rankin Inlet elder Helen Iguptak remembers the days spent with her late husband, elder Jackie Iguptak, in their Homeownership Assistance Program house, before moving into a series of public housing units over a six-year span. (Photo by David Venn)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

‘Our Home’ is a four-part series examining the old Government of the Northwest Territories Homeownership Assistance Program and the economic and social benefits of Nunavummiut building their own houses. Read more:

Part 1: When northern hands build northern homes

Elder Helen Iguptak had frosted windows, jammed doors, and mould in her public housing units. To solve this, her late husband elder Jackie Iguptak had drilled holes about five centimetres in diameter above their door to replace what was known to them as a “mould thingamajig,” creating better airflow.

The couple had lived nearly 35 years in their Rankin Inlet house, courtesy of the Homeownership Assistance Program, or HAP for short. Then in 2016 when Iguptak retired from teaching and her husband from his job as a janitor at the Northern, they realized the cost of home ownership would be too great.

“By the time every bill was taken care of, we only had enough money for one weekend. We had to eat scraps,” Iguptak says, chuckling at the memory, shaking her head at the reality. “If I ever get kicked out [now], I’ll build my own igloo outside in the snowbanks … free of charge!”

Helen Iguptak points to the “mould thingamajig” in her laundry room that she insists doesn’t work — or, at least, not as well as poking your own holes. The exhaust fan is located in her laundry room, where the door can’t shut because of where the washing machines are placed. (Photo by David Venn)

They paid off their mortgage and moved into the public housing system to receive Nunavut Housing Corp.’s free rent subsidy for elders.

Days spent in the HAP house were stable. Air circulated well and no mould grew because they had a chimney. The only time the house needed repairs or renovations was when her four children had grown older and the family needed more space.

Then, between 2016 and the fall of 2022, the Iguptaks moved into four different public housing units.

The first was a one-bedroom unit. Iguptak slept on a double bed, her daughter on a foam bed at the foot of the double, and her husband split time between the cabin and the laundry room.

Helen Iguptak’s current public housing unit, she says, is in need of repairs. The windows and doors get stuck, and her daughter suspects there’s mould growing. (Photo by David Venn)

They then moved into a two-bedroom in the hamlet’s Area 6. Mould began to grow and Iguptak’s husband put holes in the wall, simulating a chimney to de-ice the windows and door. She says it got so cold in the winter that they had to wear snowpants inside.

Iguptak, 71, now houses her daughter and two of her grandchildren. They are looking for a three- or four-bedroom unit so the family can all be together.

In the meantime, she says, the unit “needs a renovation big time” — the doorframe, windows, porch — but the housing authority hasn’t come around to fix it. “It’s a long waiting game,” she says. “You keep calling them and nobody shows up.”

The Nunavut Housing Corp. supplies 5,955 public housing units in the territory for an estimated 22,831 occupants.

It spent $224.4 million on public housing in the 2022 fiscal year for maintenance, utilities and other expenses, but only made back $17.49 million, or 7.8 per cent, of that cost through rent payments. More than $35 million was spent last year on maintenance alone.

Iguptak’s odyssey in public housing is representative of many Nunavummiut’s experiences: overcrowding, mould, wait-lists and lack of repairs.

Some say that Nunavummiut building their own homes often means better quality, and a return to HAP could help mitigate many public housing issues, taking pressure off NHC to house nearly two-thirds of the territory’s residents.

AFTER FINISHING A DAY of teaching carpentry at Tuugaalik High School, Naujaat elder Gabe Kaunak sits at his kitchen table over a cup of black tea. He recalls the days when many Inuit built their homes through government programs such as HAP and other contracts. He himself used to be a partner in a small business that built homes in Naujaat.

Before Kaunak was a teacher, he was a maintenance worker at the local housing authority for 24 years. He says public housing Inuit built are better quality than other public housing. And yet it costs the government much more today than it did when Inuit were building homes.

“At that time we were contracting, we were trying to prove to people in town that Inuit can work on their own, without the help, without getting anybody in,” Kaunak says, adding jovially that the biggest problem he faced was finding an electrician.

HAP should be brought back, he says, as well as more contract work for Inuit-owned small businesses. “Our houses are still good, the ones we built,” he says. “We didn’t rush and we didn’t hide anything.”

Naujaat elder Gabe Kaunak sits on his favourite spot on his couch after a day of teaching at Tuugaalik High School. (Photo by David Venn)

In 2021, former Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq produced a report on housing. She visited five communities, including 10 homes in Naujaat. Each was mouldy and overcrowded, with one four-bedroom unit reportedly housing 14 people.

More than 80 per cent of the nearly 1,100 people living in Naujaat are under the age of 40, and 130 residents are on the waitlist for one of the community’s 205 public housing units — 115 of which have been deemed as poor quality, according to a Statistics Canada report.

Nunavummiut attribute the dire condition of these units to different causes. One is a lack of care and attention by southern construction companies in their work, which Clarence Synard, chief executive officer of NCC Investment Group Inc., says he would agree “100 per cent” with.

“A lot of companies — not all — a lot of companies, though, are just driven on that bottom line,” he says. “‘Let’s get this job done. Let’s get out. Let’s make our money.’

“Whereas when I see a company like NCC plus other northerly-owned and operated companies, who — no matter how this year goes — they’re going to be here next year and the year after and the year after … and they realize the importance of those buildings.”

Synard has seen the same things that some Inuit have: for example, companies closing up worksites when there’s still moisture trapped inside, causing problems that come out years later.

Tradespeople work on a multiplex in Rankin Inlet in November 2022. (Photo by David Venn)

He says there’s an unwritten “Nunavut code,” which entails a checklist of housing needs beyond what is called for in the national code, such as having an airlock, secondary exit and cold porch. He often wishes engineers worked in the North so they could see how practical their designs are.

“Some of the minimums within the national building code just aren’t enough for up here,” Synard says. “They’re OK, but they’re not enough.”

In 2019 — prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — public housing cost $683,750 per unit to build. In the 2022 fiscal year, Nunavut Housing Corp. built 175 public housing units at an average price of $923,447 each, costing more than $161.6 million in total.

This does not include administration costs over the life of a unit.

In comparison, the NWT Housing Corp. approved 329 HAP houses between 1981 and 1986, according to government documents. It’s unclear how many of these are in Nunavut communities. However, each house above the treeline cost an average of $49,000, or approximately $117,000 when adjusted for inflation in 2022, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator.

HAP proved to be a cheaper option for the government to supply housing for its residents. Potentially, if it was brought back in some form it could save the government enough money to, in turn, partially fund construction of more public housing units.

Synard believes HAP could and should be brought back today. But it’s important to note it cannot be the only solution to Nunavut’s housing crisis, just one part of it.

“If anybody’s out looking for one clear solution to addressing housing issues in the North, they’re going to become very disappointed,” he says. “There’s many different avenues to resolving this.”

Eiryn Devereaux, Nunavut Housing Corp.’s chief executive officer and president, says the corporation’s public housing meets the national building code and best practices in Nunavut.

He says it isn’t always the weather, the design or construction that causes mould to grow in public housing units: it’s that some units are three or four decades old and people living in them sometimes cause damage by physically breaking things or turning off exhaust fans because they don’t like the noise.

“For any kind of contemplation, at all, that we’re building crap or garbage, is really, it’s just an uniformed consideration,” Devereaux says, adding NHC holds workshops in communities to educate people on maintenance, and wants to hold more of them.

This is a row of new fiveplexes in Naujaat, which Mayor Alan Robinson says cost $3 million each. He says the contractor did a great job building them and no one in the community has complained. (Photo by David Venn)

He says if people build their own houses, they’re much more likely to take care of them. “They have that connection, they’re going to maintain that home and they’re going to pay attention to things during construction,” Devereaux says.

He adds that if more Inuit were trained and working for contractors, NHC could see a five to 10 per cent price reduction for building public housing.

Martha Hickes, a Rankin Inlet elder and HAP house owner, takes great pride in the condition of her house and being “the driving force of maintaining the unit” over her three decades of ownership. She says when her children were growing up, they weren’t allowed to touch the walls, “not allowed to do any wrecking, nothing. And I used to wax my floors.”

It’s a trait representative of most HAP owners, as one report states that 60 per cent of HAP owners cleaned their homes daily, 20 per cent did alright at maintaining, and 20 per cent didn’t do well.

The ability to be a homeowner has also been proven to help move people out of public housing — out of NHC’s responsibility — as some residents would rather live in a HAP house than public units if given the opportunity.

Susan Hickes, Martha’s daughter, has lived in a five-unit public housing complex in Rankin Inlet with her family since 2009. In the years since, the unit has begun sloping, had multiple glycol leaks, and her clothes dryer gets filled with snow every year and her laundry room covered in frost.

Last fall, her five-year-old son was sick for three months with a cough, runny nose and fever. She believes it was caused by the mould that’s built up in her bathroom since a pipe burst six years ago from being exposed to the Kivalliq winter’s north wind.

Every spring and summer, when it warms up, a “sour, ugly” smell wafts from the bathroom into the rest of the home.

Susan says NHC has never fixed the floors, only removed the insulation to dry for a season.

“When I’m out of town, I wake up normal. And then as soon as I come home, I’m back to my constant daily headaches from all the mould in our unit, which causes stress on my job, stress on my family,” Susan says. “My special leave is gone from taking care of my son.”

She aspires to own a home and says not only would HAP help long-term tenants become homeowners, it would also open up public housing spaces for those who need it, easing overcrowding.

“We’re so tired of living in the small space,” she says.

Eight per cent of social housing tenants who disclose their salary earn more than $60,000 per year, and five per cent of them make $80,000 or more annually, according to NHC’s 2022 fiscal year report.

Devereaux says the system is “over-stressed,” with people who don’t have other options taking up spots for those who earn less.

Nunavut has 3,000 people on the waitlist for social housing, he says, and some might believe that means the territory needs the same amount of new public housing units to meet the demand. But if the option were available, Nunavummiut like Susan and her family would move on to home ownership, freeing up space for others to move into public housing.

“If there was more affordable housing supply…” Devereaux says, “literally hundreds of hundreds of people that are currently in public housing [would] make a transition into affordable, rental housing or affordable home ownership units.”

Part 3: Building people, building homes

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(16) Comments:

  1. Posted by Thoughts on

    Excellent reporting, NN. Looking forward to the rest of this series.

    Is it just me or were Inuit more empowered to be independent back in the NWT days? Homeownership creates pride in one’s work, it becomes an asset. Even more so when it was built by your own hands.

    Nowadays people seem to have no pride or respect in their units, since most don’t even pay a cent and have nothing inherently invested. Windows being smashed, walls punched in, trash in their yards, dirty diapers on the floor. I understand why NHC can’t be bothered to fix these units since much of the damage is because of outright tenant negligence.

  2. Posted by NHC’s president is reckless with both his words and his policies on

    A leader shouldn’t blame the individuals or stay rooted in defence – take accountability for NHC’s role in what is clearly a system-wide issue. Without doing this we will only get artificial solutions to complex problems (like the unfunded “Nunavut 3000”).

  3. Posted by Taxpayer on

    Given how bad the mould situation is in Nunavut, and the fact that so many houses are made with cathedral ceilings, I am surprised that anyone up here is even allowed to insulate with batt insulation anymore. Any problem at all with your vapour or air barrier, and batt insulation becomes an instant breeding ground for mould.

    Spray foam insulation has come leaps and bounds since the urea formaldehyde toxin scare of the 1970’s. It is cheaper to ship, because it comes in drums. It is a more effective insulator. It is made of closed cells, which means mould cannot grow inside of it.

    Unlike high volume/high shipping cost styrofoam -which government and contractors seem to love- it fills in all the holes and cracks and becomes its own air and vapour barrier. It can be quicker and cheaper to install with a properly trained crew and equipment.

    It seems that Nunavut construction is stuck in tradition.

    Putting up the ty-vek, putting in the batts, then putting on a plastic layer, all the while stapling, taping and caulking like crazy, (as early winter wet snow and high winds come on) is the way it has always been done, so why change?

    How on earth anyone can then reasonably expect those exterior walls to stay competent over time is beyond me. And, the facts speak for themselves. Many of those exterior walls are very soon turned to garbage.

  4. Posted by Name withheld on

    Each unit has to be equipped with HRV, especially the newer ones. But you have the tenants turning it off due to noise or complain its too cold. TRO Should be explaining this to the tenants and going over the steps to adjust it, this control ventilation in these units equipped with HRV.

    Majority of the HMS were trained to remediate mold, The sad part is that it was the senior HMS trained, those that has been employed by their LHA for a lifetime.

    Which get’s a little tricky as the senior HMS prefer to do small jobs to give them more time driving around town while the casual’s are left doing the HMS jobs. When in reality the casual’s were hired to do minor repairs in units such has beautification that requires it.

    So it all comes down to having a good foreman, if he is slacking off, you cannot say much to the HMS. Usually means the Manager does not care if the Foreman, HMS are slacking off..

    • Posted by John K on

      Would you mind explaining these acronyms?

      • Posted by Name withheld on

        HRV- Heating Recovery Ventilation system
        TRO- Tenant Relations Officer
        LHA – Local Housing Authority
        HMS- Housing Maintainer Servicemen

  5. Posted by Why? on

    Nowhere else in Canada is 85% of all housing public housing. Any incentive to get people out of this system is the way to go. Government needs to get out of social housing, it is expensive and as we can see the problem expands exponentially with the population surge. No job, no house. Otherwise buy land in the south and build cheaper units and give welfare recipients the offer of a one way flight.

    • Posted by John W Paul Murphy on

      White man tried that once before. Doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what the answer is, but, I know what it isn’t.

      • Posted by John W Paul Murphy on

        I should have been more clear in my post criticizing a comment. “Otherwise buy land in the south and build cheaper units and give welfare recipients the offer of a one-way flight” Years ago,the government of the day moved Inuit from their homes to another location, and it didn’t work then and won’t today,

    • Posted by Putting this out there on

      you had me in agreement until the comment of ship everyone on welfare south. Though the GN should be encouraging home ownership and working (being productive). There should be some way that those that help out in the community (even if they are not 9-5 paid jobs) they are moved up the list faster and get the first opportunities at the new units and renovated units.
      A hunter, seamstress, shack mechanic, or handyman/women on income support is still a valuable member of the community, also there are some people that just generally help others out but are not in the paid economy.

    • Posted by Interesting concept on

      While a very radical approach, I wonder how many Inuit would be willing to pack up and move to, lets say, Ottawa, Edmonton or Winnipeg? All city’s with thriving Inuit communities, and a lot more housing available. If they would be able to have a move-in ready unit waiting for them upon arrival, would they be willing to move away from their homeland to improve their standard of living?

    • Posted by Peter on

      The average “home” unit cost exceeds incomes by almost 600% above southern averages. There is no way for a Nunavut income earner with no collateral to mortgage a loan to buy a house. The land underneath is not worth the collateral to a private lender. All demand is from high pay civil servants. There is no private economy. There can never be a standalone, sustainable private sector housing market in Nunavut until non-government employment is much higher than public sector employment. Social and staff housing are the only options.

    • Posted by Why? on

      I figured posters would act outraged or appalled based on government policy from 100 years ago. Offering people a choice of go to work or take this plane ticket to Ottawa and our cheap stock of social housing there is a fair one in 2023 as opposed to the past where people were relocated north based on a lie for the sake of arctic sov.
      The fact that people would close their minds to obvious solutions based on history (mind you a very aggressive one sided view of history) is indicative of why Nunavut has not and will likely never prosper. Yes, keep trying the bandaids, look how well it has worked with triple the amount of people to house vs the 1980s. There are soon going to be larger Inuit populations in the south than the north anyway. For $12000 a year you can house a family in most major centres outside of Nunavut. Compare that to the average unit cost in Nunavut.

  6. Posted by Qallunaaaaaaq on

    Housing is political in Nunavut, the policy makers have a vested interest in keeping the social housing system. NHC and the GN has been offered solutions on developing homes with improved infrastructure to combat environmental issues like mould but they shot those projects down because it wasn’t lining the right pockets.

    NHC & the GN and all those policy makers are now doing a Nunavut housing challenge as a tender when the federal gouvernement already offered them solutions for the past 4 years! but NHC and GN continue to refuse real evidence-based options for Nunavut.

  7. Posted by Look to the facts on

    “constructed of poor material” – So the “owner built” homes have superior materials implying that the Government constructed homes use inferior material. So where did this high quality material come from? I had the opportunity to inspect many of the HAP units while being constructed. Sorry to report but a door is a door, a window is a window, heat plants are heating plants. The manufacturers were the same. The construction quality was no better or no worse than contractor built. The owners received considerable guidance and by the way assistance from the trades staff from the local LHO’s . The only variable, which fortunately has been acknowledge” is the occupant/owner is the builder. There is the entire difference in a nut shell. I have also worked in almost every province and territory in Canada and the story with few exceptions is the same. If the occupant has no vested interest or no penalty for damages the units are destroyed. It is pride of ownership which makes the difference not the material or construction methodology. I have always acknowledge and praised those who did build and maintain their homes. That is the story line which should be pursued rather than being critical of the builders and maintainers and materials used by the NWT or NHC. The material supplied by those organizations to the home owner/builder was from the same suppliers and of the same quality. One thing of equal note is a story carried by CTV news this am about the “11 union members” set to go on strike at Iqaluit Housing Authority “Eleven employees” the Authority back in the ’90’s had 22 trade staff plus office and Administration staff with a lot fewer homes. What happened? So imagine, removing office staff of perhaps 4 this leaves perhaps 7 trades staff to maintain which I would guess now is in excess of 500 homes with a good number of the occupants being less than helpful or perhaps a wee bit destructive. The NWT/NHC standard is supposed to be 22 housing units per qualified trade maintenance worker. Assume 500 units / 7 trades = 71 units per trade staff. Good luck. Hope they are using good material. Every one has to start pulling together from the tenant and their kids to the Minister and all in between. It won’t change, won’t improve, simply by tossing more money in addition to the current business plan of a growing maintenance burden for every new PH unit constructed even with good material and good construction, however also keeping in mind homeownership is not for everyone, it takes effort.

  8. Posted by Lyne Clermont on

    Unbelievable! But I should be used to read it and see it as I live and work in Kuujjuaq since 2016. The same problems here but not as much as your people. And the most horrible reality is that Elders are not good taking care of!!! They so much deserve it! And what about families, what they have to live, work and no ending at that creepy stuff!! Mini maisons could be a good idea, maybe??❤️??

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