I moved to Iqaluit and fell in love. Finding housing, however, posed a challenge

By: Jessie Hale on April 17, 2020
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The first time I travelled to Iqaluit was in January 2015 to meet with Nunavut Arctic College about starting the territory’s first academic publishing company. During the two weeks I was there, temperatures routinely reached -60°C with windchill, and there were only about five hours of daylight each day. Going outside for any length of time involved intensive preparation and a steely resolve. 

Nonetheless, I kept coming back, and finally, five years later, I decided to make Iqaluit my home. 

On previous trips to the North, I had stayed in staff accommodations, but when I moved there permanently I knew I needed to find a room of my own. I had apartment hunted many times in Toronto over the past 10 years, and although there is little I hate doing more, I’d never had much trouble. I had good credit and references — how hard could it be?

Very hard, I soon realized. Iqaluit is facing a steep housing shortage. According to the 2016 census, people in Nunavut are more likely than anyone else in Canada to live in overcrowded housing. There is no Craigslist or in Iqaluit; people mainly apartment hunt using the  Facebook group “Iqaluit Permanent & Temporary Housing,” which has far more people looking to rent than there are available properties. Anecdotally, I know many Iqaluimmiut (people of Iqaluit) who are living in less-than-desirable accommodations because there simply aren’t any other options.

“It would probably be easier just to buy a place!” I joked. And then that joke became a thought. And then that thought became a bigger thought. And then it became a plan. 

The price of living in the North

Two years ago, buying a house was not anywhere on my radar. Like most urban millennials, I figured my choices were either to rent forever or move to the exurbs and commute two hours a day, and neither prospect was entirely appealing. But the more I thought about buying in Iqaluit, the more it made sense. Iqaluit is a small city, but it’s growing; Nunavut is the fastest-growing province or territory in Canada, and much of that growth is concentrated in its only city. I had a stable job in Iqaluit and no major commitments keeping me in Toronto. If I was going to jump, why not jump in with both feet?

In a case of extremely good timing, my coworker happened to have listed her condo for sale just a few weeks before I arrived. A condo seemed less intimidating for a first-time buyer, and the house was modest enough for me to live there alone but big enough to accommodate visiting guests. It was also located in the Road to Nowhere area, which is fun to tell people. (Most neighbourhoods in Iqaluit have whimsical and evocative names: Tundra Valley, the Plateau, Happy Valley, Upper Base. The Road to Nowhere is named for the neighbourhood’s main artery road, which ends, as you might have guessed, in the middle of nowhere.)  

Moving from a big city to a smaller city usually reduces your housing expenses, but not when that city is Iqaluit; the two-storey, two-bedroom condo was listed at $465,000. As someone who’s used to hearing about Toronto market prices, where the average two-bedroom condo sells for about $600,000, that didn’t seem too exorbitant. So, I made an offer.

At my grocery store, a pint of ice cream is $11.99; a medium container of peanut butter, $13.99. In small communities, watermelons for as much as $70 have been reported

One strange thing about Iqaluit house shopping is that you don’t have a real estate agent as such. In my case, the real estate company, Atiilu, represented both the buyer and the seller. The company representative was a friend of my boss’s (small city, remember?) and I was fortunate to have many people around me with extensive experience of buying property both in and outside of Nunavut. So the process of closing was relatively painless, at least compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard. We settled at $420,000.

Living in Iqaluit has many challenges. It’s no secret that the cost of living here is high; food prices are up to three times the national average. At my grocery store, a pint of ice cream is $11.99; a medium container of peanut butter, $13.99. In small communities, watermelons for as much as $70 have been reported. I’m fortunate to get a cost-of-living allowance from my employer, so worse for me than the price of food is the quality. I was used to weekly trips to the farmers’ market for fresh, picked-that-morning produce, but vegetables and fruits take a long journey before arriving in the North. I’ve learned to subtract at least two days from expiration dates on lettuce, and I don’t even bother buying mushrooms anymore. (The situation is even worse in smaller communities, although there are a number of innovative companies working hard to improve food security in the North.)  

Luckily, the grocery store isn't the only place to get food from. Hunters across Nunavut harvest game ptarmigan, seal, caribou, muskox, maktaaq (beluga or narwhal skin), walrus, and even polar bear. Fish, especially Arctic char, is available year round ("Iqaluit" means "many Arctic char" in Inuktitut), and in late summer and fall, you can pick berries on the tundra and gather clams along the shores. All this is shared generously with those who need it and can also be purchased directly from hunters or at Iqaluit's Country Food Store.

Other challenges

There’s no public transit system in Iqaluit, no Uber Eats, and no movie theatre (although that at least is temporary—the theatre is being renovated and should reopen in June). And of course, there’s the cold, which dominates nearly every aspect of life. 

Another challenge I encountered was trying to explain my address to people in southern Canada, or “the south,” as we call it up here. One of Iqaluit’s many endearing quirks is that houses don’t have street addresses, or they do, but no one really uses them. If your address is 2434 Paurngaq Lane, for example, you tell people you live at “House 2434.” There is only one house with that number in town, so there’s no confusion. I didn’t even know what street the house was on until I had already moved in. This raised a lot of eyebrows at my bank when they called to tell me I’d forgotten to fill in the “street address” section on my mortgage application. It wasn’t much help when I started saying it was on the Road to Nowhere, either. (The actual street name, by the way, is Aput Court. Aput is Inuktitut for “snow.”) 

My first night in the condo was January 17, 2020. The heat seemed very low, so I called the emergency utilities service. A kind and patient Newfie flipped open a vent and informed me that the heat was working fine, it’s just really cold outside. Two weeks later, I received a $250 bill.

But for every challenge I’ve found in adjusting to a new life in the North, there’s been a positive, too. The community is incredibly friendly and welcoming. While the nightlife might not be as varied as in Toronto, there is always something going on, from comedy shows to crib tournaments to art exhibition openings. You can’t step outside and have immediate access to restaurants from every cuisine in the world, but you can get the world’s best soy chai latte at the Black Heart Café. And there is nothing on Earth quite like the vast, lonely beauty of the frozen Frobisher Bay in winter.

I don’t make big, life-changing decisions very often. But I’m very glad I made this one. If you ever want to come visit, you can find me on the Road to Nowhere.