When Sylvia Olsen was hired as the housing manager for the Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island in 1998, she faced what she says is a “typical scenario” on First Nations reserves in the late ‘90s: “A housing portfolio that was in chaos.”
At that time the majority of First Nations weren’t allowed to own homes on reserves, so unless someone had off-reserve home ownership experience, few people were familiar with how mortgages worked.
Not that First Nations bands had your typical single-family-home mortgages: 30 to 40 social housing units could be covered by one “monstrous” mortgage, Olsen said. “So when the housing program gets in chaos, the First Nation is in financial trouble, big time.”
The role of a First Nations housing manager is complex, and can be quite broad depending on the size of the community and band capacity. Duties can include collecting rent, liaising with tenants, organizing maintenance for social housing units, liaising with government agencies, and engaging in community planning. In smaller communities, housing manager can be just one of many hats a band employee wears.
The state of housing on some First Nations reserves is notoriously bad. As of 2013, the Assembly of First Nations said 40 per cent of on-reserve housing needed major repairs while nearly one-quarter of the housing was overcrowded. There’s an estimated housing shortfall of anywhere from 35,000 to 85,000 new housing units nation-wide.
Olsen knows that some outsiders blame First Nations for housing “mismanagement.”
“But these managers that we’re talking about are high performers: they’re doing jobs that are just crazy to do, and they’re innovative, thinking of ways to do it better,” she said, adding that housing managers bear the brunt of the responsibility for getting First Nations communities out of “the worst housing crisis in Canada.”
However, the majority of housing managers, mainly women ages 30 to 50 in Olsen’s experience, receive no on-the-job training. Aside from sporadic two-day workshops held by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Olsen said, First Nations housing manager training doesn’t exist in Canada.
Olsen is trying to change that. Since 2015 Vancouver Island University has hosted an online, six-course First Nations Housing Management Certificate Program, co-developed and primarily taught by Olsen. The first cohort of graduates completed the program in early 2017, taking almost two years to complete the six courses on top of their housing manager jobs.
Olsen is part of a growing First Nations movement, including the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Housing and Renewal Association’s Indigenous caucus, that is preparing for the transition of First Nations housing to First Nations control after 70 years of federal management.
But Olsen says no housing program can be successful if the people in the communities don’t have the training required to run a housing program.
“We’re building houses in communities that don’t have the administrative infrastructure to actually operate those houses,” she said. “[The federal government] absolutely have mismanaged them for years and years. They absolutely are utterly responsible to fund a period of time to get First Nations out of the historical problem.”
While some First Nations are more successful than others, Olsen said the federal government needs to step up to the plate and fund the delivery of housing manager training, with at least some in-person instruction, to all First Nations who can’t afford it themselves, for 10 years.
She estimates that a trained and adequately funded team could sort out even the worst housing portfolios in that time.
One of few programs in Canada
Each of the six courses run by Olsen takes two weeks to complete, covering a basic introduction to on-reserve housing management, as well as construction and renovation, housing administration, financial management, and interpersonal communication.
At a maximum, Olsen can handle 15 students per course, and has currently has students from British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan working towards their certificates.
With the exception of Alberta, which has its own two-year, in-person Housing Manager Certificate Program through the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and Quebec, which offers a translated version of Olsen’s program through a local college, Vancouver Island University’s online program is the only option for First Nations housing managers in Canada.
Joe Shuter is one of the growing number of men taking on housing manager positions. He works for his own First Nation, the Lower Nicola Indian Band near Merritt, B.C., where he’s responsible for 120 units of social housing and for helping another 120 on-reserve homeowners secure financing for their own renovations.
Shuter, who was among the certificate program’s first graduation cohort earlier this year, had 20 years of First Nations housing experience as a journeyman carpenter, housing manager, building inspector and construction manager before enrolling in the Vancouver Island University program in 2015.
He found that his experience covered most of the training Olsen’s program offered. But it felt necessary to enrol nonetheless.
“It seemed like as we move forward, I would have to have that additional star on my resume, beside all of the other stars. I felt like somebody would be saying, ‘Oh, he didn’t take this First Nation housing manager course, and I did,’” said Shuter, adding the federal government’s First Nations Market Housing program covered his tuition.
Shuter maintained his full-time job while taking the courses, studying in the evenings after work. But a self-professed “old dog,” he struggled with learning online, rather than in person.
“I like to look at the instructor [in person] and ask a question,” he said, adding the self-paced schedule and convenience of learning from home were benefits, but “I didn’t really feel like I was in the groove as far as the online experience.”
Olsen would also like to have an in-person aspect to the course, saying it would be great for the students to get to know one another.
“There’s one other reason, though, is housing managers need to be really articulate,” she said. “They really need to know how to speak in difficult situations... That’s one skill we can’t do online, and it’s really super important for this job.”
Despite his struggles with online learning, Shuter recommends the program to newer housing managers. “For a new person that hasn’t been involved in housing, it would really be opening a lot of doors for them,” he said.
Olsen agrees, and although there are persistent barriers to accessing training for many First Nations — which will remain without federal support — she says she isn’t a pessimist about the future of on-reserve housing.
There are some nations across Canada, and in B.C., that are building energy efficient housing, and have created their own sophisticated policies and housing management and delivery systems, without long-term federal help.
“The responsibility will lie with First Nations to house themselves when we’ve transitioned out of this absolute boondoggle we’re in,” she said, referring to the existing on-reserve federal housing program.
“First Nations that can do it, are doing it to the best of their ability. There’s a huge resurgence in housing interest.”