MLAs question empty staff units, minister replies with stock answer

by Michele LeTourneau- November 7, 2018

A persistent, unsolved problem has returned to the legislative assembly at this fall sitting: why do so many staff housing units across the territory remain vacant for years when families are in dire need of housing and live in overcrowded conditions?

Pangnirtung MLA Margaret Nakashuk’s dismay stems from a proposed five new staff units, while there are existing empty units in her community.

“When there haven’t been any new public housing units built in the last eight years. How do you justify that? That’s what I would really like to understand,” she said Oct. 29.

Minister responsible for the Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC) Lorne Kusugak said his understanding is that there are five empty staff units, with four being held for positions that will be filled.

Nakashuk disputed that number, based on information at a meeting of Pangnirtung’s housing association. She also tabled a letter from the Pangnirtung Housing Association. The letter, signed by chairperson Manasa Evic and vice chairperson Seepa Nowdlak, is short and to the point.

“In the past eight years Pangnirtung has not been allocated any new build for public housing. Every year the wait list has grown and is now 51 per cent greater than it was at the time of the last allocation,” wrote Evic and Nowdlak.

“Last year the NHC transferred a four-plex from staff housing to public housing because it had remained empty for 10 years  … There has been a minimum of six empty staff housing units in Pangnirtung not considering the empty four-plex and another empty six-plex in the past 10 years. Pangnirtung needs more public housing, not more staff housing units.”

Added Nakashuk, “There is a couple that has been waiting seven years for a house. Then there is another couple who were moved from one unit so that they could retrofit the house. Their one bedroom alone is full of furniture … With these five staff housing units for 2019-2020, please review it again.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Kusugak.

“We don’t allocate the number of houses that are going to be built in a community; we try to support the requests that are made by human resources. I agree with you, we have to work closely together with the government organizations and the communities, as well. Look at what we can do with those vacant units that have been vacant for very long time.”

Jumping in, Gjoa Haven  MLA Tony Akoak asked how long the GN holds on to staff housing before they can be turned over to the local housing associations.

“There is no end date in terms of how long we would hold them for,” said Kusugak.

Amittuq (Hall Beach/Iglulik) MLA Joelie Kaernerk wanted to know how many staff units were transferred to public housing last year, as well how many empty staff units there were. Kusugak deferred to acting vice-president and chief financial officer of the Nunavut Housing Corporation Curtis Allaby.

“There were eight staff housing units that were transferred into the public housing portfolio in the last fiscal year. Our current information indicates that there are 149 vacant staff housing units across the territory at the moment,” said Allaby.

Aggu MLA Paul Quassa raised the matter again Oct. 30.

“We have heard loudly and we have also expressed here, I think all of us, that government staff housing units in our communities are generally vacant and they are vacant for a very long time,” said Quassa.

“In my own community there are vacant government staff housing units and homeless people. While we’re in this situation, I would like to ask the minister and hopefully I get a good response. Can you change the government’s staff housing policy?”

Kusugak repeated again that the corporation does not make decisions “as to which community will get a house and for what purpose. We are generally directed by human resources and other government departments when they tell us that they need housing for their staff.”

“As I stated when I was asked on this yesterday, we are reviewing this,” he added.

It was in 2015 that Tununiq MLA Joe Enook voiced his concerns about almost a dozen staff units which had remained vacant for 16 years. George Kuksuk was minister responsible for the Nunavut Housing Corporation at the time. He had the same stock answer as Kusugak.

The housing corporation alone can’t deal with all these issues, Kuksuk said, “so we will have to work with the other departments in order to move ahead and deal with the vacant units because there are other issues that are outside of our jurisdiction.”

Quassa suggested it was time for action rather than discussion.

“I can say here that in the internal workings of the government, this is being worked on and reviewed. If those staff houses can be released, they will be released,” said Kusugak.

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