February 16, 2022

No vacancy: what fixing supply chain issues will mean for Northern housing

wood framing of a house under construction with blue sky background and bright sun centred

By Evergreen

The Housing Supply Challenge – with $80 million in funding available – seeks solutions to the unique housing barriers faced by residents in northern and remote regions

Most of us probably don’t think twice about ordering a bathtub or a new door when we need to fix something in our house. But if you live in the North, getting supplies isn’t that simple: not only do you pay exorbitant shipping fees, it can take months for items to arrive.

That has always been the reality for residents of Canada’s northern regions – for everything from packages ordered online to construction supplies. Pandemic-related slowdowns have made supply chain challenges more severe, and lack of access to building materials is further strapping the region’s inadequate housing.

Housing in the North is expensive and scarce, and what is available is often unsafe and in poor condition. In fact, almost half of households in the Northwest Territories, for example, reported housing problems related to adequacy, affordability and suitability. Not having access to building materials makes it difficult to maintain existing housing – and next to impossible to build anything new. There are shortages across all housing types, but rentals and affordable housing are particularly hard-hit.

Exorbitant prices for unsafe, poorly maintained properties

Brittney Bessette, a young mom living in Yellowknife, has struggled to find safe affordable housing for her family. As a member of the Housing Supply Challenge Support Program Advisory Committee, she hopes the Housing Supply Challenge will help bring better housing options to her community.

“It’s hard to get a place in Yellowknife,” she says. “Everything is really expensive, $2,500 for a two-bedroom, $3,000 for a townhouse. If you have a minimum wage job that’s not nearly enough. And even if you do manage to get a place, the buildings are terrible. They aren’t safe or properly maintained.

Drug deals, violence, graffiti and frequent police visits are a daily reality. Brittney says a single company owns most of the rentals in Yellowknife. They set high prices, despite the poor conditions and safety issues, and don’t take care of the buildings. Frequent fires mean she and her baby are forced to wait outside in freezing temperatures during fire alarms.

Two buildings in the city burned down in the last couple of years, taking close to 100 units off an already tight rental market, and Brittney says there are no plans to replace them. As a result, homelessness is a problem for many, and creative solutions, from couch surfing to home sharing, are a necessity. Brittney knows of a two-bedroom apartment shared by seven people: they take turns living there between shifts at a mine in a fly-in community nearby. The lack of housing is particularly tough on youth, who are hardest hit by affordability factors.

We need better access to building supplies

Tammy Roberts sees that impact on Yellowknife youth every day. She is Executive Director of Home Base Yellowknife, a non-profit that offers housing support to at-risk youth. Recently, Home Base bought a small apartment complex and have been fixing it up to offer youth safe, affordable places to live. They also purchased an adjacent lot with plans to build more housing. But supply chain challenges make renovations painfully slow – and building something new a pipe dream.

“Supplies are expensive and incredibly hard to get,” says Tammy. “We ordered exterior doors in October and they came in January. A new bathtub takes three months to ship and costs $1,700, and prices on wood are astronomical. Ordering larger items from places like Amazon or Ikea isn’t an option: as soon as I put in my postal code, it’s game over.”

Another challenge Tammy notes is getting people in to do the work: the pandemic backlog means contractors have waitlists of six months or more. And hiring “from away” isn’t an option because there’s nowhere for workers to live. So the Home Base team are doing what they can themselves as they wait for supplies and skilled help. But other communities face even greater challenges.

“Yellowknife is actually accessible,” says Tammy. “Imagine what the remote and fly-in communities across the North are experiencing.”

Looking for innovative solutions 

While buying and refurbishing housing stock is one small solution to the housing crisis, Tammy has seen other approaches, such as prefab and tiny homes, grow in popularity. But more ideas are needed to get the North the housing it needs.

The Housing Supply Challenge, delivered by the CMHC, aims to find those ideas. With up to $80M in funding available, the Northern Access Round: Supply Chain Solutions for Northern and Remote Housing encourages everyone from local residents to non-profit and for-profit organizations to propose  solutions that improve the efficiency of the supply chain, infrastructure, and/or transportation in northern and remote regions to make building and maintaining housing more affordable.

The Housing Supply Challenge Support Program, led by Evergreen, supports potential applicants with guidance, mentorship and resources to help develop their submissions.

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