By: Dr. Siomonn Pulla, Senior Research Associate, Centre for the North
Housing is about more than facts and figures -it is an issue that literally touches people where they live and raises great passion. Our upcoming report, Framing Sustainable Housing Options in Canada's North, provides an objective assessment of historic, present and future northern housing policies, programs, and initiatives. It offers a pragmatic assessment of how practitioners and people on the ground understand the challenges surrounding Northern housing, and what might be done to address them.
Housing in the North is a complex issue that affects multiple jurisdictions facing a variety of circumstances. It is a central issue that cannot be dissociated from many of the other challenges facing Northern communities. What are some of the sustainable options to address the shortage of quality affordable housing options in Canada's North? There is no "one-size-fits-all" answer. Providing a variety of adequate and affordable housing options in Canada's North continues to be an exceptional challenge: quality houses are difficult and expensive to build; and Northern housing is unusually expensive to operate and maintain. The high cost of building homes is driven by many factors: the expense of construction materials and transportation; the shortages of skilled labour; short construction seasons; the higher costs of related goods and services; and the severe climate. These cost pressures are forcing many Northerners to continue to rely on subsidized public housing options.
Rapid economic growth in many regions of Canada's North, however, is providing access to market housing options for a growing number of northerners. In Whitehorse, for example, the real estate market continues to boom, with housing prices reaching record highs. Over a six-year period, the average price for a home in Whitehorse has increased 80 per cent. Yet, while existing homeowners benefit from such a real estate boom, the resulting high prices restrict access to the market by newcomers, young residents, potential first-time buyers, and low-to-middle income Northerners.
For First Nation communities in the North, since 1996, the large and extremely complex historic on-reserve housing policies and programs managed by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) have become increasingly flexible. Community control over elements of these on-reserve housing programs are encouraging more First Nation communities to determine their own housing needs, organize their own funding sources, and choose their own house designs. However, a clearer Northern First Nations' approach to designing and building northern-specific housing is still required. Acording to one expert interviewed , building quality affordable, energy-efficient on-reserve housing for First Nations requires "a Chief and Council who can, based on good governance, put this in place and stand behind it, with the understanding that these are the rules and the community helped us put it together for our benefit and the benefit of future generations."[i]
Our research also points out that some northern communities are making significant progress with their housing. Innovative approaches and partnerships between the private sector, public sector, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities are supporting and involving Northerners in the design of adequate Northern housing consistent with long-term goals of sustainability. The collective efforts and expertise of nationally recognized building specialists and policy-makers are building a strong foundation for long-term planning and community engagement. These efforts are also generating technological advances, greater energy efficiency, and improvements to the design and structural integrity of Northern housing, both on and off reserve. Through these partnerships and approaches, Northerners are gaining increasing access to quality affordable housing solutions.
The Nunavut Housing Corporation's private sector partnership with Kott North to design 142 public housing units for 19 communities across the territory, for example, showcases how the public sector can work effectively with private developers to ensure that Northerners benefit from the most energy-efficient houses in Canada. The custom-designed Structural Integrated Panels (SIPs) used to build these public housing units have an incredibly tight building envelope of 0.19 ACH @ 50 Pa,[ii] less than one-seventh the maximum allowable air leakage for an R2000 home (1.5 ACH @ 50 Pa). These homes have been designed to use half the heating fuel needed by a home meeting the 1997 Model National Energy Code for Buildings.
Our report, Framing Sustainable Housing Options in Canada's North, provides an in-depth and grounded case study analysis of this innovative public housing initiative in Nunavut. It also offers grounded analyses of three other case studies from across Canada's North, highlighting a sustainable on-reserve housing strategy; an affordable, high-quality, non-profit student housing initiative; and an intentional way of approaching sustainable building and community design in Canada's North.
Effective Northern housing strategies ultimately require joint action between the public, private, and local sectors to make the linkages between housing, employment, and economic development. This includes upfront planning and the understanding that investments in northern housing contribute to the development and maintenance of other positive socio-economic factors, such as low crime, high employment, and successful education outcomes.
Framing Sustainable Housing Options in Canada's North will be available for download on the Centre for North's Website for free in early December 2012.