If you’ve lived in Yellowknife a while, you’ve probably been to events and meetings at Northern United Place (NUP). Or maybe you attend the Yellowknife United Church or Aurora College, which both call the building home.
The building is also home to many Yellowknifers who live in its 84 low-income housing units. Their future at the Yellowknife landmark is in question now that the territorial government is pondering what will become of Aurora College, the building’s main tenant, should it proceed with a polytechnic university.
The Franklin Avenue and 54 Street building is managed by NWT Community Services Corporation, a non-profit corporation with members rather than shareholders, so money earned through operating NUP is put back into the building.
“If for some reason we were not able to continue operating what we do, there’s potentially 40 to 45 seniors that would be looking for accommodation here in Yellowknife,” said Leonardis. “Avens definitely doesn’t have the space to take them. So where would they go?”
The GNWT has, in practice, always provided Aurora College as the building’s anchor tenant but that commitment is not in writing, Leonardis explained.
“At some point in time we recognize that the government maybe is not going to need the space,” she said.
“We also recognize that Aurora College with all these changes that are coming – they’ve always stated that they would like a standalone campus and we’re one hundred per cent in support of that, but it will have an effect on us.”
Yellowknifer reached out to Aurora College on Friday but had not heard back by press time.
The building’s 26,748 square foot commercial space occupies the first to third floors and is currently leased to Aurora College. Commercial tenants like the college have enabled NUP to provide subsidized housing for low-income tenants since it opened in 1976, without any regular government funding.
The building has 14 one-bedroom apartments and 70 bachelor units which are leased to people making less than $45,000 a year. Rent begins at $670 a month and adjusts based on each individual tenant’s income.
“So the more they make, the more the rent will go up, but it’s never more than 30 per cent of their gross income,” said Leonardis. Of those 84 units, 36 are set aside for seniors.
“If they are on fixed income such as old age security and CPP, the majority of our tenants are paying $370 a month,” she said. “You can’t get that anywhere else in Yellowknife, especially for seniors.”
All of the units at NUP are currently full, with a wait list that ranges from 10 to 25 people depending on the time of year.
Leonardis said this is something the Community Services Corporation is cognizant of moving forward and are planning ahead to make sure they have a commercial tenant.
“Because without it, our units for low-income individuals are going to be at risk,” she said. “Those individuals are going to be seriously at risk.”
The Community Services Corporation’s board, which is made up of six members from the Yellowknife United Church and three members of the community, is looking at plans to secure another commercial tenant in the event that the college pulls out of NUP.
“We’re looking at moving forward with this, those are all questions that we have to answer,” said Leonardis. “Who is out there that might fill that commercial space and provide us with that base revenue so we can continue doing what we do.”
Although the corporation does similar work to the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation, NUP has been successfully operating privately for over four decades and would like to continue doing so if possible, Leonardis said.
“We fill a niche that maybe is not being filled or that housing authorities are not able to fill just because of lack of capacity,” she said.
For example, the young single person just starting out in their career, or people making just slightly above minimum wage who don’t qualify for help through the housing authority and can’t afford market rent could find a space at NUP, said Leonardis.
“So we’re filling a central kind of vacancy that’s there in the system in Yellowknife.”
If they were to consider working with the housing the authority in some way, the next step would involve discussions with the government, she said.
“We’re not presuming that they’re going to automatically just take us over or take us on,” said Leonardis.
The age of the building as well as the upgrades and maintenance required to keep tenants safely housed there also needs to be factored into future planning, she said.
“It’s going to be a challenging couple of years, but I think it will be interesting too.”
The Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) owns the college’s lease at NUP and officials say they don’t have any immediate plans to relocate.
“Northern United Place has continued to serve as a venue for educating Northerners for more than 20 years,” stated Chris Joseph, project lead for the Aurora College Foundational Review with ECE.
Joseph said it will take several years to transition from a college to a polytechnic university and that planning process is just beginning.
“Developing a polytechnic university will build on existing infrastructure, programming and human resources over an extended period of time and decisions will not be rushed,” Joseph stated in an email.