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A Foot in the Door: 'Status' Key to Indigenous Housing

Off-reserve support just out of reach for some aboriginal urbanites. Latest in a series.

Katie Hyslop 26 Jun

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

This series is produced by Tyee Solutions Society. It was made possible through the support of the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Vancity Credit Union, the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, the Vancouver Foundation, and in partnership with Columbia Institute. TSS funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS produced articles, please visit for contacts and information.

[Editor's note: Affordable housing used to be an accepted right in Canada. For many it's increasingly out of reach -- a silent national crisis. In this election-year series the Tyee Solutions Society looks at what's failed, and how it can be fixed.]

"It's ironic, because I'm trying to help women who are homeless when I'm homeless myself," said Kim Kerrigan. The Vancouver child and youth worker, 37, has been unable to find a suitable apartment since she moved from Prince Rupert, B.C., last August.

For four months Kerrigan, her teenage son, Isaac, their dog Zoe, and Robbie the cat lived in a trailer in Kerrigan's sister's backyard. By Christmas the menagerie moved in with Kerrigan's mom, sharing a bedroom.

"[My son] kind of floats: he sometimes sleeps on the couch, sometimes on my mom's bed when she's not home, or on my bed if I'm not staying home," she said. It "isn't cool," she feels, for a 16 year-old to have to sleep on the couch.

Kerrigan has a full-time job earning $21 an hour. But with the average two-bedroom unit in Vancouver commanding $1,571 a month, she'd have to pay almost half her income in rent -- well above the 30 per cent that Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation considers affordable.

She still might stretch to the rent, if she could only find a place that allows a dog and a cat. Kerrigan won't consider giving them away: "They're my babies. Especially my dog: she would be absolutely devastated."

The Kerrigans are members of the Haida First Nation. Their fellow band members with Indian Act "status" living on Haida Gwaii reserves receive housing funding from the federal government. Once a status First Nations person leaves the reserve, they lose the right to those funds.

If you're non-status First Nations, Inuit, or Metis, it doesn't matter where you live: your housing is your problem. Kim, her mother and siblings lost their status when Kim's grandmother married their grandfather, a non-First Nations man.

A little over four per cent of Canada's population is indigenous (that number is Statistics Canada's most recent estimate, now four years old). Yet depending on city and study, 11 to an astonishing 96 per cent of urban homeless identify themselves as indigenous.

More than half of Canada's Aboriginal people lived off reserve in 2011. Their situation may get worse before it gets better. Scores of agreements that support existing indigenous urban housing across Canada are running out. Groups providing that housing are being forced to scale back, raise money in other ways -- or get out of business entirely.

Lengthening wait-lists

Kerrigan has applied for several provincial housing assistance programs, but the current average wait time for people who aren't actually on the streets is about 18 months.

Kerrigan has also sought help from the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, which oversees subsidized urban indigenous housing in the province on behalf of BC Housing and smaller providers. It has wait lists years, not months, long.

Soon those could be much longer. The Association's housing was funded through federal mortgage and operating agreements signed for terms of 25 to 40 years. The agreements funded administration and paid subsidies to keep rents below market. Across Canada they created just over 10,000 urban indigenous housing units.

But those deals expire when the mortgages are paid off, leaving housing providers with significantly lower budgets. No new federal money has gone into off-reserve housing since a one-time lump-sum payment in 2008. By 2014, 41 per cent of agreements supporting urban indigenous housing in Canada had expired. Another 20 per cent expire by 2018.

In British Columbia, almost 2,000 units received subsidies in 2011. By next year that will drop to 1,900. It falls to 1,350 in 2021. To zero by 2030.

"That is a lot of low income families that will be displaced in the coming years," said Ray Gerow, Aboriginal Housing Management Association CEO.

It's similar in Ontario, where Don McBain, executive director of the Ontario Aboriginal Housing Society, predicts 2,000 units will be lost in a province that only has one per cent of social housing for its 2.2 per cent indigenous population.

More than eight thousand people could be left homeless. But they're not McBain's only concern. There's also the millions of wasted dollars. "If you look at re-investment, it costs $200,000 a unit to build," said McBain. It makes more sense financially to save the units than build new ones.

Identity and rights

Canada's federal government maintains it has no obligation to provide housing to off-reserve, non-status First Nations, Metis, or Inuit people. Section six of the Indian Act, they argue, determines who the Act says is "entitled" to status, and therefore who is entitled to treaty benefits like education, land, and housing.

But that long-standing position is open to challenge. This fall the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case first brought against the then-Liberal government in 1998 by then-Congress of Aboriginal People's National Chief Harry Daniels.

Daniels was a Metis man from Saskatchewan, fighting for federal recognition of indigenous identity for Metis, Inuit, and non-status First Nations people. Daniels died in 2004, but his case continues. The Congress' current National Chief, Betty Ann Lavallee, insists the suit is less about treaty benefits than reclaiming identity. "The fact is, we are Aboriginal peoples," said, Lavallee, a non-status member of the Migmaw nation in New Brunswick.

Nevertheless, a court victory could confirm that non-status Metis, Inuit, and First Nations people also enjoy treaty entitlements -- including housing. Even so, it would likely be years before both sides agreed on exactly who gets rights and what those are.

Gerow's not willing to wait. "I don't hang up my rights on the hook at the front door of the band office when I leave [the reserve]," he objects.

So, with academic partner Professor Margot Young, he's recruited six students from the University of British Columbia's law school to find fresh legal grounds to establish federal responsibility for off-reserve indigenous housing, regardless of status.

The students, mostly indigenous first-years, have already prepared a backgrounder on indigenous rights in Canada's constitution. "The next step," said Young, "will be to think a little more outside the box about ways that backdrop can be useful," in expanding rights for those living off-reserve.

Leverage and enterprise

Gerow insists that expanding federal responsibility wouldn't necessarily invite demands for a lot of new funding. It could simply mean allowing First Nations to spend funds they already receive beyond their reserve limits.

Or perhaps they could leverage federal contributions with resources from other sources such as municipalities. For example if the federal government gave them $10 million for a housing project, said Gerow, "We would take that $10 million and leverage that [into] something that can house three times the amount of people."

The providers Gerow's Association works with are also exploring new ideas. Some are selling units to indigenous clients who are ready to take on a mortgage. Others are starting for-profit businesses whose revenue funds non-profit housing.

One opened a boutique art hotel. Skwachays Lodge and art gallery subsidizes Vancouver Native Housing's 24 non-profit live/work studios for indigenous artists in the same building.

But social enterprises won't save smaller providers of housing whose volunteer boards already struggle with burn out, warns Ontario's McBain. They'd be better off to turn their management over or amalgamate with larger operations for efficiencies of scale. His Ontario Aboriginal Housing Society, for example, manages buildings once belonging to 11 smaller providers.

Good riddance to subsidies? In fact, while some want federal subsidies renewed, McBain says he's glad to see them go. "If you're in your 24th year of [a 25-year] subsidy agreement, your portfolio is basically 95 per cent equity. And you can't borrow against it as long as you're getting the subsidy," he said.

Among other things, that makes it harder for the buildings' owners to finance needed mid-life renovations.

Instead, McBain thinks federal funding should make up the difference between what provinces provide people in greatest need -- those on welfare or disability -- for rent, and what shelter actually costs in their marketplace.

Ontario's government has promised to pass along five per cent of funding it receives through the federal Affordable Housing Strategy for more affordable off-reserve housing units.

"[Housing providers are] still going to have to work really hard," McBain said, "because you're still going to have to administer that and [the federal government] are not providing you any administrative dollars or any client training dollars. But at least they're giving [housing providers] the option to continue providing deep core housing."

With a full-time, above minimum-wage job, Vancouver single mom Kerrigan might not seem like an obvious candidate for social housing. But with market rents running to half her income -- way above standards of "affordability" -- her other options are few.

She continues to hunt for safe, suitable and affordable accommodation for her and her kids, human and otherwise. The sooner the better: no 37-year-old maintains their sanity for long when they live at mom's. "I probably should have moved out a couple of months ago," she laughed.

More off-reserve indigenous housing geared toward families like hers would help, but getting it will take new degrees of cooperation between all levels of government -- including indigenous ones.  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing

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