First Nations housing providers face funding issues

Wigwamen Incorporated partnered to purchase, build and operate affordable housing at the Pan Am/ Parpan Am Athletes’ Village site, 75 Cooperage St. PHOTO: Wigwamen Inc.

Ahead of the federal Liberal government’s anticipated announcement of a plan to address Indigenous housing issues, a local non-profit Indigenous urban housing provider is underscoring funding issues facing organizations like itself.

“There will be no reconciliation as long as First Nations peoples are required to live in grossly sub-standard and utterly unaffordable housing,” said Angus Palmer, general manager of Wigwamen Incorporated, which has dozens of affordable units in Beaches-East York.

Wigwamen general manager Agnus Palmer, second from left, speaks at a Jan. 31 community forum.

Wigwamen offers below-market rental units through a variety of funding programs, some dating back decades. In certain cases, Wigwamen receives monthly government subsidies for each unit in a building, which allows them to charge lower rents. Other times, the housing provider has received capital grants up front to fund the construction of new affordable housing.

But sometimes the operating subsidies model falls short, Palmer suggested. “When the mortgage is paid off… the operating subsidy stops… but you still have people with low incomes living in those units, and so the question is, ‘Is there still going to be funding?’” he asked.

Palmer said losing subsidies has not been a problem for Wigwamen. But it has been for other non-profit housing providers he is aware of. Some have faced challenges as a result, as operators are still responsible for paying utilities, taxes and the cost of repairs adds up, he said.

Beaches-East York MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith acknowledged the problem.

The intention of the subsidies was that, with the savings Indigenous housing providers receive, once the mortgage was paid off, organizations would be in a position to continue to offer below-market rents, the Liberal MP said, noting he was aware this is not always the case.

“You still have to put money aside for potential capital repairs,” he explained.

Erskine-Smith said the 2018 federal Liberal budget, set for release on Feb. 27, may include the additional funding for Indigenous housing that the government is committed to providing. “A major theme of the budget… is going to be reconciliation,” he said.

The funding would be in addition to money earmarked for the Liberals’ National Housing Strategy, a 10-year, $40-billion initiative announced this past November.

One of the strategy’s goals is to cut homelessness across the country in half.

It is not yet clear what, exactly, the funding for the Indigenous population would go towards, but it would be part of a yet-to-be-finalized Indigenous Housing Strategy. Erskine-Smith said the strategy would “be built on the same principles of the National Housing Strategy.”

He said it would include funding for new homes as well as repairs and specific benefits for Indigenous people in need.

“We are absolutely seized with this. The situation with Indigenous peoples off reserves obviously needs to be addressed,” said Erskine-Smith.

The Ministry of Indigenous Services is “engaging with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation partners to develop distinctions-based housing strategies,” according to a statement forwarded by Erskine-Smith.

The consultation is “an ongoing process between the department, NIOs (national Indigenous organizations) and other Indigenous partners,” according to the statement.

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