Our Home: When northern hands build northern homes
Part 1: It starts with a couple who built their own house 35 years ago
‘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.
“We moved in here September 28, 1989,” says elder Martha Hickes, sitting beside her husband, elder Robert Hickes, at their dining table on a fall Saturday afternoon in Rankin Inlet. She lets out a giddy laugh, smiling at the memory and her ability to recall the date without hesitation. Nearly 35 years later, their home stands worn and grey “like an old haunted house” from the outside, Martha tells everybody, though clean and roomy on the inside.
The Hickeses raised a family of six in this house. Their children Sheri, Sandi, Bobby, Susan, Benjamin and Trinity grew up here, and their granddaughter now stays with them. Remnants of bygone days are scattered throughout the living room and kitchen: a painting of a tree, another of a hand dropping blueberries into a pail, portraits, unfinished renovations and repairs.
“We were so excited to move to a new house,” Martha says. “It was our home. It helped us to grow, to be homeowners, for the better.”
And they built it themselves.
As a young couple, Martha was employed in the public works department in the Government of the Northwest Territories — of which Nunavut was a part at the time — and Robert worked as Rankin Inlet’s arena maintainer.
By the time they’d been married 15 years, they were living in a three-bedroom public housing unit with five children and had good incomes. They wanted a bigger space for their family, so in 1987 they applied to the NWT Housing Corp. Homeownership Assistance Program, or HAP for short.
Back then, residents in the territory could apply to HAP to receive materials to build a home at no direct monetary cost. The housing corporation simply required them to prove they were 19 and lived in the territory, could afford the bills that come with home ownership, hadn’t owned a home before and could build most of the house themselves or with friends and family, among a few other criteria.
The Hickeses applied for a lot across from Johnston Cove, where they stand now, looking out their window as the waves come toward them from the water that’s just beyond a dirt road and patch of grass. “Nobody’s got a view like this around here!” Robert says.
The housing corporation quickly approved their application, and they began building less than 12 months after sending in the paperwork. A package of materials with all the lumber and supplies arrived at their lot in the summer of 1988, and they got to work.
“When we moved in, all my kids had their own rooms and it was more space and a very clean and unused building,” Martha says. “You feel at peace, and it’s so calming to be in your own home and you don’t have to deal with other issues, ugly issues.”
Home ownership — let alone the Hickeses’ path to home ownership — is hardly an option for Nunavummiut today.
The housing stock in 22 of 25 communities across the territory is in serious, high-need or critical condition, according to Nunavut Housing Corp.’s 2021-2022 annual report. Iqaluit needs to increase its housing supply by 85 per cent of its current stock, while Rankin Inlet needs to increase it by 70 per cent and Naujaat by 69 per cent.
Martha and Robert Hickes are only two of potentially hundreds of Inuit who, predominantly in the 1980s, built their own houses at little to no cost through HAP.
Some Inuit, researchers and people who work in the construction and housing industry say HAP was a cost-effective way for the government to provide quality housing and it should be available to the territory’s residents again. They argue the benefits are numerous: HAP cost the government less to operate than public housing; there would be less reliance on public housing; Inuit could learn valuable construction skills; individuals can gain pride from building their own homes; and the work could help communities grow their economy.
AT THE BEGINNING of the 1970s, the Canadian government owned most residences in non-resource-based communities in the Northwest Territories as a result of its increasing presence in the North. The federal government transferred some of these units to the territory for subsidized renting, but between the two they still owned a great portion of housing.
Even until 1981, residents owned just 16.3 per cent of the dwellings in the smallest 45 communities, according to a 1986 NWT Housing Corp. document on HAP. The corporation concluded dependence on government housing, “with its negative social and financial costs, would have continued indefinitely.”
Meanwhile, in the late 1970s residents who lived below the treeline began innovating how their communities built housing. They were chopping trees, bucking them into logs and building homes themselves. The territorial government noticed the initiative and began providing materials that weren’t available in the communities, such as roofing and insulation, according to a 1987 evaluation on HAP by engineering firm Ferguson Simek Clark.
The idea of providing housing materials to a resident and having them contribute sweat-equity was formalized as the Homeownership Assistance Program about five years later in 1983.
In its first four years, the government distributed 438 HAP packages throughout the territory, increasing allocations each year. The goal was to address a growing housing shortage, incentivize home ownership to reduce dependency on territory-owned units, empower communities to solve their own housing issues and to develop a housing market, according to government documents.
It also led to other positive outcomes, such as eliminating the disincentive to work because there were no income-based cost adjustments as there were with public housing.
It surpassed these goals, according to program evaluators.
“It was a good program and we’d like to see it come back,” Martha says. “I know young people that have full-time jobs are trying to find a home to buy, but there’s none available.”
Susan Hickes, Martha’s daughter, remembers moving into her parents’ house at the age of four, admiring it for its grandeur. Now 39 and with two kids, a husband and living in a public housing unit, she sometimes thinks her best chance at home ownership may come when her parents cannot maintain their house anymore and she can return to her childhood home.
“There’s absolutely no opportunity in stuff like that now,” Susan says, watching her daughter play hockey at Rankin Inlet’s Agnico Eagle Arena. “Trying to show your kids a good life, trying to purchase stuff to show them our tradition, and to try and save on top of that — it’s hard.”
Susan moved into her apartment, a two-bedroom unit in a fiveplex that’s a “stopper of the wind” in December 2009 just after it had been built. She and her husband work full-time and they’ve been trying to buy a home, either prefabricated or modular, but nothing has worked.
A program like HAP, she says, could allow her young family to grow the way she did living in her parents’ house.
“I think we’re being held back, the people that want to move forward and become homeowners,” she says. “Nothing I can do — just live day by day and hope for the best, hope for good news.”
Through HAP, the NWT Housing Corp. would provide a client a loan that would be fully forgiven in five years. If the client sold the house before then, they would have to repay the loan balance. Clients were responsible for building the house, but could receive help from a HAP supervisor. The electrical work was done by a contractor hired by the government.
The average HAP house was about 8.5 by 9.1 metres in size, according to evaluators of the program who also found a HAP unit cost the government 43 per cent less than a public housing unit over a 50-year lifetime.
Residents had the ability to choose almost everything about their home. The government found that by offering a few different housing options with interchangeable interior layouts, the program could suit the varying cultural needs of the territory. And it did all this with the help of a project co-ordinator.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Alan Robinson would walk around Cambridge Bay and other western Nunavut communities with a briefcase.
He’d meet with potential HAP clients, take them through a catalogue filled with bright drawings of quaint homes and different interior designs; there were different measurements for kitchens and bathrooms, pictures of cabinets, countertops, floors and foundations.
The client would tell Robinson the style and colour of everything they wanted — the house, the walls, the siding — and he would send the information in and wait for the materials to arrive on the following summer’s sealift.
“It was a fantastic system. It worked,” says Robinson, now 78 and the mayor of Naujaat.
During the mid-1980s, Robinson moved to the territory and joined the NWT Housing Corp. as a project co-ordinator for the Keewatin, which is now largely the Kivalliq region. A carpenter with decades of home-building experience, his job was to help residents through the application and construction process and to ensure every approved unit got built.
Over his tenure, he would frequent communities to inspect HAP units. Once, he travelled to Bathurst Inlet to oversee a program similar to HAP, where Inuit were in charge of building their own dwellings.
Robinson speaks fondly of what he and the Inuit he worked with accomplished in those days. When he feels sad, he looks at photos from Bathurst Inlet to cheer him up. He tells prideful stories of homes built and the people behind them — one in particular in Gjoa Haven, where he maintains he’s “never seen such a beautiful house in all my life.”
“Immaculate,” Robinson describes it, “the baseboards, the trim, everyth— kitchen cabinets — beautiful.” He wanted to hire the builder to finish three HAP houses after inspecting his home. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll make you a deal,’” he recalls, having offered the builder some money. “Guess what,” Robinson slams his fist on a table in his office, leans in and lets off a grin. “He finished the goddamn three houses and he got the $15,000.”
The program still had its challenges, however, one being the way units were allocated and to whom.
Some said residents who don’t have a family shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the program; others said people with higher incomes shouldn’t be eligible; several clients of the program said politics played a role in who got housing; and at least one person believed the way the program had been advertised excluded those who needed housing most, because they couldn’t understand the messaging.
In one community, a researcher found HAP had the potential to exclude women, elders and people who were physically disabled, unless they were a dependent of someone who could build. The researcher stated further that it was designed to help able-bodied people, creating “a certain elitism” as “these less advantaged groups may be left farther behind.”
There were also some units that never got finished, and the NWT Housing Corp. would sometimes take them over as public housing. A 1992 document notes there were six communities with unfinished HAP units that may have been taken back by the government; all were Nunavut communities.
There also seemed to be confusion about what the program offered, as some clients when asked about the program thought their home still belonged to the government. Twenty-three per cent of HAP clients said they couldn’t understand the blueprints and so they built based on what they had seen others do.
Forty per cent of clients the evaluators interviewed said their HAP homes didn’t have enough rooms, or that rooms were too small, and 14 per cent said the same of their kitchen; there were also many who said there wasn’t enough laundry space.
However, the evaluators viewed this as positive because those opinions showed a change in clients’ association with housing: they owned it, and so wanted it to be suitable to their liking.
NWT Housing Corp. seemed to address its exclusionary policies by allowing clients to trade sweat equity for cash equity, though it’s unclear if it worked. Many HAP clients also enlisted friends and family to build their homes.
Finally, Robinson says, the program could have used a few adjustments. Mainly, blueprints should have been simplified and translated into Inuktut.
SUSAN’S APARTMENT IS mouldy and too small for her family. She pays $1,400 a month in rent to NHC. And when she fell behind on payments, Martha used money she’d received from her residential school settlement to pay off her daughter’s arrears.
Susan wonders what all their money is going toward and how it’s helping her family’s future. She struggles for an answer.
“Imagine being given that opportunity, what I could have now if Nunavut still had [HAP].”
Part 2 Tuesday: The high cost, low return of public housing