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A scuttled transitional housing project at Arnica Inn is back in business and set to house homeless residents at risk of COVID-19, Yellowknife Women’s Society executive director Bree Denning said.

Denning signed a deal with the motel owners on Friday that will convert the inn into 42 units of transitional housing aimed at supporting residents experiencing homelessness. To support the troubled project, Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has reopened its file, and NWT Housing Corporation has promised $660,000 in funding, Denning added.

The plan fell through last month when CMHC rejected a $4 million funding request from the women’s society over an apparent lack of support from the NWT Housing Corporation. With the CMHC filed reopened, the motel owners have provided a year-long deferred payment so the society can take over the motel while its file is re-evaluated — a 300 day process.

The Arnica Inn is back on the table as a transitional housing project after owners agreed to defer payment for a year. The new proporal calls for turning the hotel into housing for homeless people at risk to the novel coronavirus.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

“It basically means we won’t have to take out a massive loan, which is a huge benefit to the organization,” Denning said. She attributed the generosity of the owners, the TC Group of Companies, to the community-minded legacy of founder Tony Chang, who died in 2015.

The society is now aiming to move-in individuals at increased risk of COVID-19, Denning said. Typically, it would have to wait to carry out renovations, but the risk to some individuals quickened the process.

“As rough as it’s been for everyone, it has brought up a realization for everyone that there are vulnerable people on the streets, who really aren’t protected from this kind of global pandemic,” Denning said.

Similarly, the experts CMHC want to evaluate the building are stuck in Edmonton as travel is restricted amid the health crisis, setting back another step in the transition process.

Project has a troubled history

The project proposal was functionally cancelled last month after the CMHC rejected the funding proposal after the housing corp. appeared not to support the project. Conversely, the housing corp. said it reneged because CMHC had lingering concerns.

The finger pointing lit-up a fiery response from several Yellowknife MLAs and Mayor Rebecca Alty who at the time said she was “shocked and dismayed” over the plan’s cancellation.

About a month before news of the cancellation emerged, a group of prominent concerned citizens wrote to Premier Caroline Cochrane and Housing Minister Paulie Chinna, raising the alarm over housing corp.s foot-dragging with the project.

“We are on the precipice of losing a tremendous opportunity,” wrote the concerned citizens, who included notable members of the business community and a former assistant deputy minister with the GNWT.

The public support and pressure from politicians, especially from Mayor Alty, played a key role in turning the project around, according to Denning.

Moving forward, the society is immediately aiming to house individuals unable to self-isolate during the pandemic. 

For that reason, Denning said she hoped the momentum of the project illustrates the need of pursuing housing for those experiencing homeless, who previously faced outbreaks of illnesses like influenza and MRSA. 

If the next pandemic strikes in our lifetimes, she said, they’d ideally already be housed.

“I hope what comes out of the COVID response … is that these folks deserve our support in good times as well as bad,” Denning said. “Hopefully coming out of it, we’ll have built up more of a compassionate community.”

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Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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