The housing crisis has been called the “hidden iceberg” lurking beneath many systemic issues facing Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The Cree Nation Government (CNG) has been proactively addressing the urgent need for affordable and adequate housing by working collaboratively with communities since 2011.
Last April, it succeeded in amending its governance agreement to remove a previous 75-year limit on residential land leases, which CNG executive director Bill Namagoose says is a systemic barrier that locks many First Nations communities into a cycle of poverty. This amendment now enables Cree families to accumulate equity in their homes, an important step to creating a private home ownership market.
With overcrowding affecting one in five Cree households and a projected 4,500 new homes needed in the territory by 2021, recent CNG initiatives have focused on helping families make the move to private home ownership. At the Summit on Building Capacity in late October, Grand Chief Abel Bosum stated he expects a strategy regarding home ownership to be approved in December, ready for implementation by April 1, 2020.
“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.”
On November 20, Irene Neeposh presented research conducted by her company, SKY Community Economic Development Services, at the CNG meeting in Chibougamau. Among the objectives of her 120-page report were to determine the readiness of social housing tenants to migrate to home ownership and potential obstacles hindering this transition.
“We had no choice but to be dependent on [social] housing,” Neeposh told the Nation. “It was all that existed. Now we’re at a point of creating a housing market and have to make sure we’re not feeding dependency. We have to encourage people to move over to private housing and provide support.”
The research methodology included a survey of social housing tenants and those on waiting lists, as well as a qualitative component involving focus groups with seven of the nine housing committees in Eeyou Istchee communities. Survey questions investigated residents’ satisfaction levels with housing, saving and payment tendencies, attitudes regarding rent payment and readiness for home ownership.
“The research found there is a very high turnover rate in tenants of social housing,” said Neeposh. “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.”
Results suggested only half of these residents are satisfied with their housing, about the same number as those who said they’re up to date with their rent payments. One-quarter of respondents were over a year behind in payments with a further 38% unsure about how overdue their payments are.
“This affects the cash flow of managing existing units but it also creates a negative precedent for the younger generation to develop these tendencies,” Neeposh explained. “There are no consequences right now for people who don’t pay their rent. Eviction is very hard because everybody knows everybody and political interference doesn’t allow us to be consistent.”
The study revealed opportunities for improvement. Sometimes there are dual-income families or those with extra rooms living in units taking valuable space from those who truly need it. Neeposh suggested developing a “housing spectrum” ranging from emergency accommodation to ownership housing so people can see where they fall within the spectrum and what they should be aspiring towards.
“What the housing committees are seeing, there’s limited financial literacy, a high level of dependency and entitlement, and the negative precedent set by the non-payers,” said Neeposh. “It becomes a vicious cycle. For instance, there are no interest charges, nor eviction – one can be a delinquent as long as they want to.”
The committees reported that rent-collection challenges include a lack of preventative maintenance measures, personnel and accountability. Neeposh suggested the possibility of meeting each social housing tenant on an annual basis, with those refusing to pay perhaps moved to a lower level on the housing spectrum.
Although a majority of respondents dream of owning a home, they need financial advice and support in acquiring necessary professional services. Namagoose had previously said the Cree government is researching construction costs in Val-d’Or as a baseline measure, with subsidies making up the difference for building in Eeyou Istchee.
“A way to remove dependency is to give incentives as a part of programming,” suggested Neeposh. “The grant funding that’s there is one incentive. Maybe you build your house and we do tree planting, encourage landscaping and give discounts for upgrades – taking an active part in the market.”
Her report analyzed current housing trends, such as communal accommodation, tiny houses and prefabricated units, suggesting that Eeyou Istchee could explore manufacturing the latter to control quality in material and construction while providing a direct return on sales.
Other recommendations included providing financing options, developing home ownership programs and making residential construction guidelines available to home builders.
As the real estate market develops, there would be emerging needs for new social programs such as transitional housing, rooming housing, and rental supports. In its housing strategy, the CNG also proposes creating a regulatory body to protect consumers, manage real estate programs, and ensure access to competitive financial products.
“How do we bring about this change?” Neeposh asked her focus groups. “The bottom line is we need to innovate. Then educate, encourage using positive mediums, and create dialogues so we can break these negative tendencies.”