Inuit housing shortage is a public health crisis, says Canadian Senate report

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The housing shortages that plague the four regions of Inuit Nunangat represent a public health emergency that requires immediate federal government intervention, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples said in a report issued March 1.

To fix it, they recommend the federal government develop a funding strategy for Inuit Nunangat to help regional housing agencies cope with declining social housing budgets and make better plans to cope with long-term housing needs.

“The lack of decent and affordable housing continues to have serious public health repercussions throughout the Inuit territories,” the report said.

The committee is chaired by independent Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck while Conservative Senator Dennis Patterson serves as deputy chair.

To research their report, the committee heard from numerous witnesses at hearings held between February and June 2016, and in April 2016, visited communities in Nunavut and Nunavik.

They found the housing shortage is linked to multiple public health crises in the the Canadian Arctic such as tuberculosis, which occurs among Inuit at a rate that is 250 times greater than in Canada as a whole.

It also contributes to higher rates of respiratory tract infections among Inuit children and chronic lung diseases connected to overcrowded and poorly ventilated buildings.

And they also said overcrowded and inadequate housing is connected to more stress, anxiety and other mental health problems.

Because home ownership and private rental housing is financially out of reach for many Inuit, social housing will continue to be a necessity, the committee found.

“Given the ongoing financial and demographic pressures for social housing, adequate federal support is considered critical by many in order to help territorial and Inuit governments keep up with the escalating housing needs in their regions,” their report said.

One of the most serious financial problems that Nunavut and the Northwest Territories face is declining revenue for social housing maintenance.

That’s because, under an arrangement that dates to 1998, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. is slowly reducing its operation and maintenance contributions to the two territories.

By 2037, these CMHC contributions will have been reduced to zero, and the territorial governments must pay all social housing maintenance costs.

This means the Nunavut and NWT housing corporations will be increasingly reluctant to build new social housing — because to do so will add to their already staggering annual maintenance budgets.

“These operation and maintenance costs only grow as more homes are built. The Nunavut Housing Corp. said that operating and maintenance costs are so high that if the corporation were to successfully address the housing deficit in Nunavut by adding 3,000 units by 2037, its operating budget would have to double,” the report said.

Another factor is rapid population growth, especially in Nunavik, where the Inuit population grew by 23 percent between 2006 and 2011, more than double the Inuit population growth rate in Nunavut.

And Nunavik likely suffers from some of the worst deprivations.

“Nunavik has one of the highest rates of overcrowding in Canada, with 53 percent of Nunavik families living in overcrowded homes in 2015,” the report said.

That compares with an overall overcrowding rate of 38 percent in Nunavut, although in some Nunavut communities, the overcrowding rate is as high as 72 percent.

Another problem is that land lease policies make it difficult for many people in Nunavik to become homeowners.

“Land tenure regimes, where land is collectively owned, can also make it challenging to obtain mortgages and mortgage insurance,” the report said.

Local landholding corporations, which control municipal lands in Nunavik under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, are allowed to lease lands to individuals for a maximum of only five years.

Longer leasehold periods require the approval of a general assembly of the landholding corporation.

At the same time, Quebec law prevents the creation of mortgages on lands leased for less than 10 years and the CMHC will not ensure mortgages on lands unless the term of the mortgage is five years less than the term of the land lease.

“The combination of these factors makes it almost impossible for an individual to acquire a house, unless he or she can dispense with mortgage insurance,” the report said.

The result is that only 3.2 percent of Nunavik Inuit live in their own homes, compared with 21.9 percent in Nunavut and 72.4 percent in Nunatsiavut.

Yet another problem in Nunavik is that very few local Inuit ever qualify for staff housing when they are hired for government jobs.

That’s because, under collective agreements with Quebec unions, those housing units are reserved almost exclusively for southerners hired from the South.

“It creates a lot of racism, a lot of hate of white people, a lot of hate of people that come up to work… It really hurts when I can’t get housing and I know it’s empty,” Nunavik youth representative Olivia Ikey told the committee.

To fix the housing mess in Inuit Nunangat, the committee makes 14 recommendations.

These include the following, that:

• the CMHC should work with other federal departments, territorial and regional governments and Inuit organizations in the NWT, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut to develop adequate, predictable, stable and long-term funding for housing;

• the CMHC should look at delivering funding directly to Inuit organizations;

• the seven Nunavik communities where marine shippers must still pay marine navigation fees should be exempted from paying those fees to reduce the cost of shipping building materials;

• the Treasury Board and Inuit governments should look at staff housing allocations to better include locally-hired people;

• the CMHC should look at more homeownership programs, plus housing co-ops, co-housing ownership, and buy-back programs;

• the CMHC should continue to fund Habitat for Humanity’s Indigenous Housing Program;

• the CMHC should look at new technologies for housing construction; and,

• the CMHC should ensure that greater numbers of young Inuit are trained in construction trades.