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New private housing initiative triggers concern at Council meeting

BY Andre Simoneau Feb 13, 2020

One of the major points of interest at the Cree Nation Government Board Council meeting in Montreal January 28-30 was the presentation of the CNG’s proposed new private housing initiative.

The initiative would divide the current community housing plan – which oversees social, rental and private housing – into two distinct programs, one covering rental and social housing, and another covering private home ownership. 

The latter program would offer subsidies for new housing units built by private Cree homeowners, or by local governments or their development corporations, and would draw those funds from a $100 million budget that represents half of the third and final installment of the $1.4 billion package guaranteed by the 2008 Federal New Relationship Agreement.

“In our negotiations for the New Relationship Agreement, housing was a grievance,” noted Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the CNG. “It was one of the issues we had to settle. If we don’t solve our housing crisis, there will be an exodus from the Cree communities. We see that already happening across Canada.”

Grand Chief Abel Bosum confirmed the CNG’s commitment to developing a private housing market at the Summit on Building Capacity in late October 2019.

“We have made the area of housing a major priority for the Cree Nation,” Bosum said in his summit speech. “This housing strategy has enormous potential for stimulating our local Cree economies while, at the same time, creating employment and solving a number of persistent social issues related to overcrowding.”

To that end, the CNG commissioned research into the readiness of social housing tenants to migrate to home ownership and potential obstacles hindering this transition.

Irene Neeposh, whose company SKY Community Economic Development Services conducted the research, presented her findings to the CNG in November 2019.

“The research found there is a very high turnover rate in tenants of social housing,” Neeposh said in an interview with The Nation in December. “People are moving around a lot. This causes strain on the administration of social housing and therefore affects the ability to provide any services for private home ownership.”

Limited financial literacy, a high level of dependency and entitlement, and the negative precedent set by the non-payers are all added factors, Neeposh observed.

“It becomes a vicious cycle,” she said. “For instance, there are no interest charges, nor eviction – one can be a delinquent as long as they want to.”

One way the CNG’s new housing initiative aims to remedy that situation is by introducing a rental scale policy that would see an increase in rents over five years based on household income.

“High-income earners continue to live in social units,” Namagoose said. “Those high-income earners have to accept their responsibility, and vacate some of those social units, and go into private ownership.”

That movement toward private home ownership would further be encouraged by the subsidies set out in the new private housing initiative. In the draft of the initiative presented at the Board Council Meeting in Montreal, those subsidies would be allocated based on the size of the home to be built, the type and number of units, and the community in which it is built. The subsidies are meant to cover only the differential cost of building a house in the North, which means applicants would still be responsible for securing financing and land rights.

Namagoose says the program aims to create a healthy housing market in Eeyou Istchee, so that Crees can build up equity by investing in home ownership.

“It’s much better to build up equity in your house, rather than paying rent, which is an expense,” Namagoose said. “You can’t build equity with expenses, you build equity with investment in a house.”

While the draft of the initiative was met with mostly positive reactions, many questions remained, with Neeposh raising concerns that the strategy didn’t take into account the full findings of her report.

“What is our objective with this housing strategy?” she asked during the meeting. “Is it to provide a quick response to the housing situation? Or do we want to provide a quality response to the situation? I think we can triple the housing stock, as opposed to double, if we play our cards right.”

Meanwhile, Chief Davey Bobbish of Chisasibi wanted clarification as to how the cost estimates for construction were decided.

“There’s a big difference in the subsidy rates compared to what we had last year,” Bobbish said. “We should look at what the going rates are now, for construction costs. But I agree with the concept, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Another main concern is a lack of focus on education and financial literacy.

“This program is ready, but we have to get the people ready,” said Mandy Gull, Deputy Grand Chief of the CNG. “We need to have a financial planning process locally. We have to address the point that’s the most important, which is to change people’s behaviour. This is the cornerstone that’s going to make home ownership feasible for people.”

The proposal was eventually tabled, with further discussion planned for the next Board Council Meeting.

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Andre Simoneau is a writer and filmmaker from the Eastern Townships of Québec. He studied English literature and creative writing at Concordia University. He currently lives in Montréal.