National strategy could reset urban Indigenous housing, but some say more is needed
Some advocates say affordable housing must find a new and sustainable model
Patti Doyle-Bedwell still remembers how it felt to be a poor student in subsidized housing, fighting with her landlord to get the sink fixed.
"It's like you're not worthy of anything. That was the way I felt all the time. So trying to get something fixed, it wasn't happening," she said.
That was 30 years ago. Then, she was a university student with little money and a young son, living in an apartment in Halifax owned by a non-profit called Tawaak Housing Association, which serves urban Indigenous families.
"Tawaak is very necessary," she said. "I don't think I would have got through school if I wasn't living in Tawaak."
Now, she is a tenured professor at Dalhousie University with a house of her own.
Doyle-Bedwell believes she wouldn't be where she is today without Tawaak, but that doesn't mean the relationship was smooth.
"The problems that we had in that apartment was mainly mould," she said. "There was a water leakage in the bathroom, and the wall behind the sink got totally wet and turned to mould, and they never fixed it."
Doyle-Bedwell has spent years studying the social inequities affecting Indigenous women and men, and the barriers like poor housing that can keep them from achieving their goals.
When she heard last winter Tawaak tenants had started speaking out in the media about the same sort of living conditions she faced three decades ago, she was saddened.
"There was mould again, water leakages again, holes in the floor again, and that was the same way that my apartment was," she said.
"If you are living in subsidized housing, you don't have other options. That's why you're there. When I was there, it's because I didn't have other options."
Sheena McCulloch lived in a Tawaak building in Dartmouth, N.S., from 2010 to 2017 because the subsidized housing helped her afford post-secondary education.
McCulloch was taking an esthetics diploma at the time and raising her youngest daughter. She says her unit suffered from mould, pests, and poor repair.
She says this made school and parenting extremely difficult.
"It was really stressful," she said. "I couldn't give my 100 per cent at anything. It took my ethic, it took my drive, it really sucked the life right out of me."
McCulloch eventually graduated from her program and began working in her field. Last December she filed a lawsuit against Tawaak seeking damages, and her claim has not yet been tested in court.
"All the other tenants and all the other students and mothers that went into Tawaak Housing that didn't succeed, I'm there fighting for them. Because I know how it feels," she said.
Tawaak started new work to repair its properties this month. Its leaders say the buildings will finally be brought up to proper standards. But they're concerned about how to get to long-term sustainability.
This is a story repeating across the country for many small urban Indigenous housing providers founded in the same era as Tawaak. It's leading some advocates to say housing for Indigenous people in urban communities must be more fully addressed in the federal national housing strategy.
If a sustainable model for those small providers cannot be found, some worry the housing many Indigenous families rely on will be lost.
Historical housing program
Tawaak was created in 1981, and owns more than 50 properties across Nova Scotia in Halifax, Dartmouth, Sydney, Bridgewater, Liverpool, Truro, and Antigonish. It is one of many non-profit and co-op Indigenous organizations created between the 1970s and early 1990s.
At that time, the federal government had responsibility for social housing and subsidized the creation of many "urban native housing" programs. 104 of those organizations are still in existence, overseeing 300 housing projects across Canada.
In the mid-1990s the responsibility for social housing was turned over to the provinces. For some, this reduced access to funding, says Margaret Pfoh, the CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Management Association of British Columbia (AHMA), an umbrella group of smaller housing providers.
The AHMA providers banded together to advocate for themselves when the provinces took over housing. But for organizations like Tawaak that have to go it alone, the challenges are greater.
"They face capacity challenge because they're small. So if they have only, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 units, generally, those budgets were never flush enough for them to get creative," she said.
Pfoh says some providers are also facing the expiration of other operating subsidies, which will further squeeze their budgets. It is not unusual for her to hear of small providers across Canada dealing with deteriorating housing stock.
"In fact, it's not unusual in any part of the world where colonization has occurred," she says.
In February 2019, the federal government announced $638 million for urban Indigenous people under the $40-billion national housing strategy. About two-thirds of that is for people who are homeless, and one-third for programs like Tawaak.
Some Indigenous organizations, including AHMA, have criticized that amount as not enough to meet the need.
AHMA and others have been calling for the creation of a national strategy on housing for urban Indigenous people. Pfoh believes this would give small organizations a stronger voice.
'Hoping that I'm not too late'
Chief Sidney Peters knows fixing Tawaak will be a major job. In addition to his duties as the chief of Glooscap First Nation, Peters became the chair of the Tawaak board last November.
Peters worked in housing for many years and has seen the need in rural and on-reserve areas. In the last census, Statistics Canada identified that one-quarter of the on-reserve population lives in a building in need of major repairs.
"I've seen what has happened in the rural areas and I really didn't want to see that happen in the urban areas, and I was hoping that I'm not too late to try to help turn this around," he said.
He knows how many people live off-reserve for jobs, education, or health care. He draws a connection between safe urban housing and the fiduciary responsibility of the Crown toward Indigenous peoples.
"If you take a look at people and demographics, people have to go. They have to work, they've got to live and they have to be educated. A lot of these [reserve] communities may not be near universities, college," he said.
"We're not getting the funding there that's required to help us move this forward."
The breaking point
Tawaak is the largest provider of off-reserve housing for Indigenous people in Nova Scotia. It isn't tied to any of the province's 13 Mi'kmaw First Nations.
The organization was profiled in a 2017 study funded by the Government of Canada. At that time it had six full-time employees and one part-time employee. Wages were listed as "not competitive" and there were no funds for staff training.
Claudia Jahn, the director of community housing development at the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, has done reviews on such organizations before.
To Jahn, it is no coincidence that tenants are becoming desperate now, about 25 years after a fundamental shift in social housing policy.
"What we are seeing is really that the non-profits were depleting their stock over many years. And as we know, the lifespan of material in the units is traditionally 25 years. Just from windows, heating systems, roofing. So this is really that we've reached that breaking point," she says.
Jahn has seen other non-profits deal with this breaking point by selling off some of their buildings to fund repairs in others. She says the national housing strategy is a much-needed injection of cash, but the way non-profit housing is delivered must evolve.
"Our ask and our hope is really that this kind of support and policy will be consistent for the future, because otherwise we will be in the same situation in 25 years," she says.
Jahn and her organization are working with Tawaak as it goes through restructuring.
Chief Sidney Peters says he doesn't know yet what the long-term version of Tawaak will look like. But he's worried without some way to offer safe, affordable housing to Indigenous families, it will be much harder for those families to move to the cities and towns where they want to live, get jobs or schooling, and raise their children the way they want to.
"I just know how important a home is to people," he said. "If you don't have a home and you've got no place to go — even when you're a kid or whatever — you always remember home."
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