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New BC Indigenous Housing Strategy the First in Canada

Tired of waiting for a federal strategy, off-reserve Indigenous housing providers in BC create their own.

Katie Hyslop 28 Jan

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them here.

When media and governments discuss inadequate and unsafe Indigenous housing, it is typically about housing in First Nations and Inuit communities.

Yet nearly 80 per cent of Indigenous people live outside their home communities. Federal housing efforts that solely focus on housing on reserves and in Inuit communities miss most of the Indigenous population.

An estimated 20 per cent of individuals living outside their home communities are in core housing need, meaning they live in unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable housing. Overall Indigenous people are eight times as likely to experience homelessness as non-Indigenous people.

Some of those urban, rural and remote Indigenous people live in housing units operated by Indigenous housing providers, non-profit organizations which, like housing co-ops, receive government funding to operate.

And, like some housing co-ops, many units are old and falling into disrepair due to lack of funding for upkeep. There also aren’t enough housing units to meet the demand, with Indigenous populations being some of the fastest growing and youngest in the country.

British Columbia is home to one-third of the urban, rural and remote Indigenous housing providers in Canada, represented provincially by the Aboriginal Housing Management Association.

It’s been just over four years since Canada released its National Housing Strategy, which almost totally ignored Indigenous housing providers, much to the association’s frustration.

“Many of us have said that there is no national housing strategy, because without inclusion of Indigenous peoples, that is not a national housing strategy,” said Margaret Pfoh, CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Management Association.

For years now the federal government has pledged to create an urban, rural and remote Indigenous housing strategy that is led by and for Indigenous people.

Tired of waiting, the Indigenous caucus of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, representing non-profit housing providers across the country, released their own Indigenous housing strategy in 2018. But still no nationwide strategy or funding has come from the federal government.

Now the Aboriginal Housing Management Association has released its own strategy for Indigenous housing renewal and expansion in B.C. But in order to provide over 30,000 households with subsidized new or renovated housing units over the next 10 years, they will need $7 billion in funding.

This week, the association launched its “British Columbia Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy.”

The 10-year strategy, a collaboration between the Aboriginal Housing Management Association and Indigenuity Consulting Group Inc., aims to determine housing solutions for over 30,000 Indigenous households in the province. It was based on Statistics Canada data, consultation with 30 member housing providers as well as 12 Elders and tenants, and the associations advisory council, which includes other non-profit housing and service providers,

Pfoh told The Tyee the ongoing pandemic prevented them from consulting as many tenants as they would have liked. “Most of the tenants require face-to-face access,” she said, adding internet access issues in rural and remote B.C. made it difficult to do virtual consultations.

The strategy plans on building 5,400 new supportive housing units and 12,850 units of independent subsidized housing. It would also repair and revitalize 4,400 existing units while maintaining their affordability, provide rental support to 10,350 households and support 1,400 households towards home ownership.

The estimated resources required over 10 years — calculated before the pandemic and 2021 wildfires and floods impacted the supply chain and material costs — are $5.2 billion in one-time capital funds and another $2 billion in operating costs.

“AHMA’s provincial housing strategy is a response to the failure of the federal government and the National Housing Strategy to address the housing rights violations experienced by Indigenous peoples residing in urban, rural and northern communities here in British Columbia,” Pfoh said during the Zoom launch of the strategy this week.

But the strategy isn’t just about telling the government what they’ve failed to fund, she said. The Aboriginal Housing Management Association has been working towards a “for us, by us” Indigenous housing strategy like this one for 25 years.

“Today is a historic step forward in taking back our inherent rights to self-determination,” Pfoh said. “AHMA’s strategy represents the possibilities that can only be attained by decolonizing the political traditions of housing in Canada.”

Taking over from BC Housing

Until recently any federal funding for Indigenous housing off-reserve in British Columbia flowed to BC Housing, who would then give it to the association to distribute amongst their members.

But recently AHMA received $250,000 from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. for the Housing Internship Initiative for First Nations and Inuit Youth, pairing young Indigenous people with housing providers to train for housing industry careers.

“Our goal with that — and I think theirs, too, though none of us want to admit it — was to test us out with our ability to actually administer these funds,” Pfoh told The Tyee.

“Because we're going to be asking for a direct relationship with the federal government, that they have an allocation coming out of the National Housing Strategy in 2022.”

AHMA estimates for every annual $1 the federal and B.C. governments invest in this housing strategy, they will see a $7.40 return through increased income for the housed, decreased homelessness, increased employment, increased spending in communities, increased property and income taxes and a decrease in need for government services.

The strategy plans for culturally safe and relevant housing units with wrap-around supports for those who need them and ensuring the success of all Indigenous people who live in the units whether they’re youth, families, seniors, low-income, middle class, queer, trans, straight or cisgender.

It also aims to build up Indigenous housing provider knowledge and support them in hiring, training and retaining more Indigenous employees.

Scott Clark, president of the North West Indigenous Council representing off-reserve Indigenous people in B.C., applauds the Aboriginal Housing Management Association for its new strategy. But he adds AHMA represents service providers that are accountable to the governments that fund them, not to Indigenous peoples.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done between the housing providers, service delivery organizations and advocacy organizations” like the council, he said.

A member of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Clark said the council has witnessed the federal government’s hesitancy toward funding off-reserve Indigenous housing firsthand.

“We've been in negotiations with the feds for the last year and a half, most of it's just been navel gazing kind of stuff,” he said. “There hasn't been really any positive commitments by the feds to transfer resources and authority to Indigenous self-government for housing for off-reserve Indigenous peoples.”

Where will the money come from?

Developing the strategy is only the first step. In order to implement it, both the federal and provincial governments will need to provide the Aboriginal Housing Management Association with resources.

The association has already scheduled a meeting with David Eby, the B.C. minister responsible for housing, to discuss the strategy.

Because of the wrap-around nature of the supports they want to provide — and the broad section of the Indigenous population they want to serve — they expect further meetings with provincial ministers responsible for seniors, people with disabilities, youth leaving government care, to name a few, will be necessary.

“I’d like to thank the Aboriginal Housing Management Association for its thoughtful strategy, and I look forward to speaking with them in more detail about it in the coming weeks,” Eby said in an emailed statement sent to The Tyee.

Eby’s statement went on to cite provincial funding in this area, specifically the Building BC: Indigenous Housing Fund that will provide $550 million from 2018 to 2028 to construct and operate 1,750 Indigenous housing units on and off-reserve, including 831 units off-reserve built so far.

The federal government has been promising its own national Indigenous housing strategy since it launched the existing housing strategy in late 2017. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said that is still the plan.

“Our government is currently undertaking a new approach to housing that is anchored in reconciliation and that achieves improved outcomes for Indigenous peoples,” the statement read. “We have made it clear that we are committed to the co-development of an urban, rural and northern housing strategy.”

The statement added the federal government has already invested $1.5 billion in the development of housing strategies for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. However, talks have mainly taken place with First Nations and Inuit governments responsible for on-reserve and Inuit territory housing.

The federal government said it has also put $2.5 billion into the Rapid Housing Initiative to build 10,254 affordable housing units for vulnerable people, 41 per cent of which are earmarked for Indigenous people. As well the statement said its “prioritizing” Indigenous people for revitalized and new housing constructed through the $13.2-billion National Housing Co-Investment Fund.

“AHMA provides inspiring leadership in achieving positive housing outcomes for Indigenous Peoples in B.C., and our government looks forward to continue co-operating with AHMA and providing our utmost support,” the statement read.

But the Aboriginal Housing Management Association is concerned the government’s approach won’t be effective for people living off-reserve, which is why they maintain off-reserve Indigenous housing funds should be sent to them to distribute among their members.

“The federal government can't implement an urban rural, and northern Indigenous housing strategy, because they themselves are not urban, rural and northern Indigenous peoples, and they don't understand the complexities of needs,” Pfoh said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Housing

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