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Housing answers may reside within First Nations

Underneath a canopy of cedars, a new subdivision in starting to form in a remote inlet of Vancouver Island.

The Ahousaht First Nation is ready to break ground on a plan for 62 new homes – a desperately needed project in a community where many dwellings are coated with mould and crammed with people.

About 1,000 community members live on reserves, but only half have decent housing.

Residents of Ahousaht are not alone. More than 20,000 houses need to be built and another 5,500 replaced to close the housing shortage on Canada’s reserves, according to the Auditor General of Canada.

The urgency of the housing crisis has been brought into focus recently by news of horrific living conditions in Attawapiskat, a northern Ontario reserve where 90 people are living in construction trailers.

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While Ottawa searches for a fix in Attawapiskat, First Nations are finding their own solutions to the growing housing shortage.

Partnering for change

Three years ago Ahousaht began brainstorming solutions to its housing problems with the Clayoquot Forest Communities Program. Since the community holds forestry rights, a $63,000 sawmill seemed like an ideal way to provide jobs and help build homes.

“When you have a crisis in housing it is fine to build the houses, but eventually the individuals have to pay for them, so they need work,” said Jerry Boyko, project manager at Ahousaht First Nation.

Already the mill employs about ten people and has been used to build a high school and a residence for teachers.

Elsewhere in Canada, First Nations are partnering with celebrity builders and non-profits to build housing that meets their needs.

HGTV superstar Mike Holmes and the Assembly of First Nations are working in Atikameksheng, Ont., where homes are crumbling thanks to substandard construction coupled with a marshy environment. The partnership aims to give community members building skills to construct homes that surpass the national and provincial building codes.

Just this week, Habitat for Humanity and the AFN signed a deal to increase the number of First Nations involved in construction projects, increasing the number of homes and the skills of community members. The houses won’t be free, but will come with an interest-free mortgage of some form.

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AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo said the deal “sends a clear message” that First Nations will look beyond the government to satisfy housing needs.

“We really think that Habitat homes are transformational to the families,” said Stewart Hardacre, president of Habitat for Humanity Canada. “It is not just because there are four walls and a roof, it is about the process and the dignity it brings.”

Hardacre said the approach won’t be the final fix, but it includes the engagement and empowerment that is currently missing when it comes to on-reserve housing.

Closing the housing gap on reserves comes up against a host of problems that often include funding, red tape, difficulty getting mortgages, poor design, non-existent maintenance skills and no jobs to pay for them.

Communities calling the shots

Keeping the community at the centre of new housing is key to ensuring success, says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, the Nexen Chair in Aboriginal Leadership at the Banff Centre.

Too often the federal government comes in with a plan, design and pre-approved suppliers, she says, instead of looking to the community to identify their needs, create a location-specific design and pony up some of the human resources and financial capital.

“(The federal government) does everything the way it wants it done,” said Wesley-Esquimaux. “You have to do this and you can’t do that … it just leaves everybody thinking what’s the point of trying because you’ll never be able to get out of what is going on anyways because they will stop you.”

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In Ahousaht, a new 62-lot subdivision has been designed to use the mill’s siding and beams and fit the future needs of the community.

Homes are being built with three bedrooms and two storeys, one of which could be developed into in-law quarters or smaller residences in the future.

Building equity through ownership

The other big change: the families will have to buy the houses. Twenty mortgages have already been approved.

“The idea is to get people owning their own homes and building their homes. There is no free housing anymore, we have to pay for it,” said Boyko.

“It is really changing the mentality of the way we think,” said Ahousaht resource manager Tom Paul. “The mentality that the band owes you a house is ingrained in us, so this is I think going to change that.”

Ownership of some form is the foundation for housing success, according to Wesley-Esquimaux.

“When you put money, your money, into something, it creates meaningfulness,” Wesley-Esquimaux said, adding that rent-to-own programs could be adopted in cases where people aren’t eligible for mortgages.

Getting a mortgage isn’t always easy for people who live on reserves because they don’t own the land their house is on. It is held in trust by the Crown and the band council has to be financially sound enough to co-sign mortgages.

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Boyko said it can be done though if the community has a strong business plan to put to the bank and the federal government.

“You have to go after it and you have to present a proper business plan and you have to perform,” he said. “If you don’t do that there is no way they can lend funds.”

That is easier said than done in a place like Attawapiskat, which is under third-party management, says Wesley-Esquimaux.

Instead, she says the government should pony up the cash after the community makes a proposal for how they want to build.

Sharing success stories

While the Ahousaht model may not be universal, Boyko said places like Attawapiskat can learn from them.

“Everybody has got a resource around them. The people have to think about what can be developed,” he said.

Though promising, finding innovative ways to build houses isn’t always easy.

Ahousaht officials still has a long way to go before it can get products out onto the market at competitive prices due to a lack of transportation infrastructure.

Still, the future remains bright, according to Paul.

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“It is well worth the effort to go through these hiccups and these growing pains to get to where we want to be and trying to be independent,” Paul said, before heading out to see the foundation being poured on his new house.