Louisa Smith, an Edzo Elder, says she pays $200 monthly to whittle down Housing N.W.T. arrears.Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Two Elders with health issues and a permanently disabled son in their care are paying Housing N.W.T. a monthly $200 to whittle down arrears. They’re using their pension to do it.

Louisa and Johnny Smith are in a tricky situation. Louisa, 71, is the family’s full-time caregiver. Her husband, Johnny, has a complicated medical situation that requires he travel between Edzo and Yellowknife for dialysis three times a week. Their adult son, Jerry, is blind.

Louisa’s busy life is not by choice but necessity, she says.

“I very seldom get respite, rest, for myself,” Louisa told Cabin Radio. “I feel so done. I’m not getting enough sleep, not enough rest, I’m always on the go. I said: I can’t take it.”

Louisa is a breast cancer survivor and spent the past year recovering from a broken hip. Despite this, Louisa says she remains the primary caregiver for her husband and son because there is no one else to do it.

Coupled with the family’s health issues, housing debt has been a heavy burden on the family, Louisa says.

Johnny and Louisa bought their house in Edzo from the territorial government for $1 in 2001. But the house required repairs before it could be occupied, so they had the work done and paid for it through government programs that offered a combination of forgivable loans and cost-sharing.

The couple were raising three children who all had complex disabilities of their own, which kept Louisa busy as their caregiver. At the time, they believed the cost of renovation would be covered by funding meant for families with children who have disabilities.

In reality, some of the costs were covered, but some were not. To pay for the repairs, the family say they unknowingly took on a $50,000 loan that converted to a mortgage with Housing N.W.T. on November 1, 2002, according to financial documents viewed by Cabin Radio.

The mortgage was to be repaid over a 15-year period beginning December 1, 2002, at $439.88 per month.

“It’s Housing – they did that. They put it on a mortgage and then, three years ago, they said: you owe us that much money. So, they started taking my income tax. They took the whole thing, over $4,000,” said Johnny, referring to the annual refund many Canadians receive following their income tax filing.

“And then they want me to make some kind of payments. I’m only getting $1,600 a month in my pension.”

In 2019, Housing N.W.T. took the couple to court for more than a decade of mounting arrears. Johnny says this was the first time he learned the couple owed money at all.

Over the years, the unpaid mortgage grew with interest. In 2022, Johnny and Louisa received mail from a law firm stating their total owing was now more than $150,000.

“If we had all that bills… all those years they never said nothing,” said Louisa. “It’s not fair for people to be treated like this. Especially people that have kids that are disabled, like myself.”

Johnny, Louisa and their son, Jerry, rely on pension money for all of their expenses, which include medication, food, gas for frequent medical trips to Yellowknife, and home upkeep.

“It’s not fair,” Johnny said. “I’m one of the Elders and they’re taking my $200 away and, on top of that, they took my tax money away.”

Cabin Radio viewed documents from a law firm representing Housing N.W.T. in 2022, which set out a debt of $154,434.70 and proposed the family make $200 monthly payments “in exchange for not filing Canada Revenue Agency and wage garnishments.”

Louisa’s signature is found at the bottom of the document.

Louisa says she didn’t know that by signing the document, she was consenting to having $200 taken from their monthly pension income to repay the debt.

In a later letter, Louisa signed another document consenting to have the family’s income tax refund taken should the couple fail to make $200 monthly payments to Housing NWT. She says she didn’t know what she had agreed to until after signing.

Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong says she has seen this situation before, where Elders sign documents without knowing what they’re agreeing to – partly because of language barriers, partly because they have no legal counsel, and partly because there are limited housing options.

“There’s a lot of them like that. They’re still paying and they shouldn’t be,” Weyallon Armstrong told Cabin Radio. “People were desperate at that time for housing, so they didn’t understand that agreement that was in place – they just signed.”

At the time these mortgages were established, Weyallon Armstrong says poor communication led residents to misunderstand the terms of their housing arrangements.

“The ‘mortgage’ term was new to many of my constituents or to many of the residents in the N.W.T., especially in small communities,” Weyallon Armstrong said in the legislature.

“So many of them signed on to mortgages not fully understanding what they were signing up for.”

Debt forgiveness

Weyallon Armstrong has spent years raising the issue of Elders paying money from their pensions toward housing arrears.

She has characterized this as the garnishing of pensions and has called on the territorial government to forgive the debts of Elders and residential school survivors.

In the legislature last year, fellow MLA Caitlin Cleveland said more than 900 residents owed more than $13 million to Housing N.W.T. in arrears. Then-MLA Kevin O’Reilly said Weyallon Armstrong’s proposal would clear around half of that debt.

In a formal response to Weyallon-Armstrong’s motion, the GNWT stated that Housing N.W.T. does not garnish Elders’ pensions.

“Housing N.W.T. does not have the legal authority to conduct this activity and is not pursuing any policy or legislative changes that would allow it to do so,” reads the response.

“Housing N.W.T.’s Collection Policy principles require fair and consistent application to all mortgage clients and tenants, which includes over the aged of 60 and Residential School Survivors.”

While Housing N.W.T. cannot garnish pensions to pay arrears, Canada Revenue Agency tax returns can be garnished, housing minister Lucy Kuptana told Cabin Radio.

“We don’t garnish any pensions. We can garnish any other income,” said Kuptana. “It would be a court order.”

Further, the GNWT’s 2023 response stated that between 2020 and 2023, its Financial Management Board approved the forgiveness of 419 debt files, amounting to more than $20 million in cleared debt.

The Financial Administration Act outlines the framework for debt forgiveness, which states that forgiveness is possible in cases where “collection of the debt or enforcement of the obligation is unreasonable or unjust.”

Still, Weyallon Armstrong says she continues to hear stories from Elders about arrears.

This year, she again requested in the legislature that Housing N.W.T. commit to debt write-offs for Elders.

“In my heart of hearts, I wish I could write everybody off, but I can’t. We’re a housing corporation and we use this revenue to provide more housing,” minister Kuptana responded.

“Rental income, mortgage income, those are all significant revenues in the Housing NWT budget,” Kuptana told Cabin Radio. “We need that money to maintain our housing units, pay our housing employees, and also fund our local housing associations.”

How are arrears collected?

The N.W.T. Rental Office is the government agency that hears claims, interprets housing legislation, and makes decisions on disputes that fall under the Residential Tenancies Act.

The majority of applications filed to the rental office in 2022-23 concern arrears, according to the office’s latest report. Further, 69.2 percent of files related to subsidized public housing tenancies. People can be ordered to pay sums by the rental office, and those orders can be enforced through the N.W.T. Supreme Court.

Most of the monetary compensation ordered by the rental office relates to rental arrears, which amounted to more than $2 million in 2022-23, the rental office report states.

The Department of Finance’s collections agency employs collections officers to administer the government’s debt collection process.

Weyallon Armstrong addressed finance minister Caroline Wawzonek in the legislature about the government’s debt collection practices last month.

“With respect to Elders broadly as an individual category, that is not currently a consideration and would probably be difficult,” Wawzonek said, referring to debt forgiveness specifically for Elders.

“There may be an opportunity to build in what appropriate considerations are when an agency [such] as Housing brings forward debt for management to the Financial Management Board.”

An internal review is under way at Housing N.W.T., according to Kuptana, who says her department is working closely with the Department of Finance and others to advance policy on this front.

“I understand it is a critical issue for many Elders across the Northwest Territories,” Kuptana said in the legislature last month.

“Housing N.W.T. has been reviewing all relevant government policies and considering the possible introduction of a new policy approach to further assist Housing N.W.T. tenants and clients in addressing their arrears, including Elders.”

Weyallon Armstrong says many factors are leading Elders to rack up debt, ranging from caring for grandchildren to what she considers to be abuse by financial institutions or landlords.

Some Elders living in Yellowknife “are paying over $3,000 for rent, plus utilities,” she has said in the legislature.

“It’s a disgrace, because there’s no rent cap. There’s no way anybody will get out of debt if you’re paying over $3,000 for rent.”

‘Do it while they’re still here’

In Johnny and Louisa’s case, the couple missed their N.W.T. Supreme Court appearance. Louisa says she and Johnny were in poor health and couldn’t go.

In the couple’s absence, the court ruled in Housing N.W.T.’s favour.

Once the couple discovered $200 was being diverted to Housing N.W.T. every month, they reached out to Weyallon Armstrong for help.

“It’s wrong to make our Elders suffer like that. They’re struggling as it is,” Weyallon Armstrong said. “For the system to do that to them, for me, it’s not right.”

Louisa says that Weyallon Armstrong helped to stop these monthly payments between January and March 2024. But in April, the $200 withdrawals resumed.

“It doesn’t seem fair for us. Especially with all the medical issues that my kids have, even today. My husband’s on CPAP, he’s got kidney failure, and I’m looking after my son,” said Louisa.

“I went through breast cancer, a broken hip, but still I’m the only one that’s looking after them.”

“We must be able to find a way to ease their financial stress so they can live the remainder of their days in peace, not forgive the debt when they’re gone,” Weyallon Armstrong said in the assembly.

“Do it while they’re still here, so they can enjoy life.”

By Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 03, 2024 at 06:09

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories
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