When the federal government launches its national housing strategy this fall, it will have taken two years to deliver its promised fix to Canada’s housing crisis.
But Indigenous people — eight times as likely to end up homeless, almost twice as likely to live in substandard housing — won’t find the “for us, by us” solutions they seek in that strategy, advocates say.
Indigenous people want and need their own separate housing strategy, says Margaret Pfoh, CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, an umbrella organization for Indigenous non-profit housing providers in British Columbia. And it’s no surprise Indigenous people face high risks of homelessness or subpar housing, she said.
“When you take a look at the effects of colonization and the whole history of the evolution of Indigenous peoples — not only here in Canada, but any country that has had colonization occur — you end up with those disproportionate statistics,” said Pfoh.
“But beyond that, you end up with a cultural disconnect,” she said. “If we’re going to address Indigenous issues, it ought to be addressed by Indigenous, for Indigenous.”
That’s why AHMA was created, she said. The association is just one of the organizations represented on the Indigenous caucus of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, a national umbrella group for non-profit housing providers.
Last week the caucus released its suggestions for a nationwide Indigenous housing strategy, based on its May meeting with more than 100 representatives from Indigenous governments and housing providers.
The result is a list of core principles, desired outcomes and suggested policies that encompass the spectrum of housing needs — on reserve, up north, in rural regions or in urban centres.
Some of the recommendations include recognizing Indigenous peoples’ inherent and treaty right to housing and the federal government’s responsibility to Indigenous people; the importance of Indigenous involvement; and consistent, long-term, adequate funding for new and existing housing units.
Pfoh said a separate Indigenous housing strategy doesn’t equate to segregation.
“On the surface it sounds like that,” she acknowledged. But unless policies affecting Indigenous people are designed for and by the oppressed peoples, they won’t work, Pfoh said.
“There’s an automatic resistance when it comes from a non-Indigenous leadership or organization, despite any best intentions, to create programs or opportunities that are not driven by Indigenous, for Indigenous.”
Indigenous control over Indigenous housing is the starting point as the caucus and organizations like the Assembly of First Nations work on housing strategies encompassing First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
Pfoh said this would lead to a more efficient and sustainable housing system that eliminates Indigenous homelessness, while increasing housing security.
Many non-profit housing providers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have opposed the end of federal funding under operating agreements that subsidized affordable housing operations and rent-geared-to-income housing.
But Pfoh says the program didn’t fit the cultural or housing needs of Indigenous communities.
“A lot of these operating agreements had requirements that a three-bedroom unit is for a parent and two children,” she said. “And so a lot of housing providers were put in a difficult position of breaching the operating agreement if they chose to allow grandma, grandchildren and siblings to share bedrooms that by the requirements that are set out by the operating agreements, are actually not eligible.”
As a result, Pfoh says some homes end up overcrowded — and the residents are possibly evicted as a result. Other units with three or more bedrooms can end up being occupied by one or two people, because housing for singles is scarce.
The Indigenous caucus wants the $225 million over the next 11 years promised in the 2017 budget for off-reserve housing to go into a trust to help pay for long-term maintenance and subsidies for tenants.
But the caucus report calls for other changes. The current subsidy program limits rents to 25 per cent of tenants’ incomes. When their income increases, so does their rent.
It might seem logical, but Pfoh says low-income people typically are in debt from paying for necessities like food, phone and transport.
When their rent increases as soon as their income goes up, their ability to pay down debt is reduced. Knowing that extra income means higher rent makes work seem less desirable than income assistance or other benefits, she said.
Allowing flexibility in the timing of rent increases would provide “motivation and incentives for our families to work towards stability, without seeming to come across as punitive by increasing rent without any consideration for lifestyle adjustment.”
The caucus has sent its recommendations to both the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which is developing the national housing strategy, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, which is working on on-reserve housing reform.
Pfoh says the separation between on- and off-reserve housing is a symptom of a dysfunctional system.
The federal government is responsible for housing on reserves, and provincial governments responsible for off-reserve housing. But while 70 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada live off reserve, many people migrate back to reserves and then leave again.
Housing rights shouldn’t depend on where a person is living or which level of government is responsible, Pfoh says. “They’re dichotomizing us as Indigenous peoples.... We don’t cease to be Indigenous peoples because we’re on a reserve or we’re off a reserve.”
The federal government hasn’t responded to the submissions. But the caucus believes the budget’s $225 million signals support for an Indigenous housing strategy.
But Pfoh said that would fund about 900 units of new housing, far short of what’s needed for a national housing program.
“Our housing waitlist in the Fraser Valley before I came to AHMA, was getting close to 900,” said Pfoh.
An Indigenous housing strategy is still far away. Consultations between all levels of government, including Indigenous governments, and housing providers, are needed.
Pfoh says a strategy could be released as early as this fall. But given the complexity of negotiations, an early 2018 release is more likely.