Private-sector help and innovative designs are making headway in improving substandard housing in Canada's North, says a new report from the Conference Board of Canada.

But the demand still outstrips supply and the need for government-funded building isn't going to diminish anytime soon, said author Anja Jeffrey.

"There is simply not enough fully subsidized public housing available for people in the North," said Jeffrey. "Private market housing in the North is still a long ways off."

Her report, Framing Sustainable Options for Housing in Canada's North, was released Monday by the board's Centre for the North.

Substandard housing has long been an issue in the North, from northern aboriginal reserves in the provinces to the Inuit communities of Nunavut's High Arctic.

Studies have revealed that northern housing stock tends to be the oldest, most run-down and crowded in Canada. Those living conditions are in turn linked to everything from poor health to domestic violence to low educational achievement, all of which are common in the North.

But Jeffrey's report has found some good news in the effort to improve those conditions. She found four case studies that demonstrate it's possible for public- and private-sector groups to come together to build quality housing.

The Nunavut Housing Corporation and Kott North built 142 homes throughout the territory that are so well-insulated they're expected to use half the heating fuel of a standard home.

In La Ronge, Saskatchewan, the Northern Teacher Education Program has built affordable, quality student housing to make it easier for aboriginal students to attend college.

A coalition of private-sector builders and aboriginal organizations including the Assembly of First Nations are currently working out ways northern First Nations can fund and construct sustainable homes on their lands.

And in the Yukon, local bands, developers and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation have worked together to design and build a new energy-efficient and culturally appropriate house in Dawson that's intended to be a template for use across the territory.

The key, said Jeffrey, is for builders, funders and other agencies to pool their resources and work together.

"It's really only when private developers come together to build affordable housing for the community and where they're willing to take a risk that you see the private-sector engagement that's truly needed to fill that housing gap," she said.

Designers have to consider factors they wouldn't normally worry about in the south.

All materials have to be either flown in or come in by sea lift, to be unloaded on a beach. Builders may not have the same skills as southern tradespeople, and the construction season is short.

"Unless you have innovative approaches and designs, you will typically have built an infrastructure that is not durable, will have condensation and will not be inspected afterwards," said Jeffrey.

Still, Jeffrey sees little sign of the development of private real estate markets anywhere in the North outside the major centres.

"The problem, often, is the lack of critical mass," she said. "I just don't think there is enough private market housing available to offer it at a competitive rate."

Market solutions need enough of a market to function," said Jeffrey.

"Somebody needs to find that sweet spot where the private sector believes that there is enough return on investment. Then there has to be public-sector encouragement to go in and do it."

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