First Nations housing: thinking outside the box

From energy-efficient units to home ownership schemes, First Nations across the country are finding unique ways to tackle the housing crisis.

From energy-efficient units to home ownership schemes, First Nations tackling the housing crisis

A six-unit modular home under construction on the Yale First Nation in B.C. (Yale First Nation)

While mouldy, overcrowded homes are a sad reality in many First Nations, some communities are looking within and finding unique ways to shelter their people.

On the Yale First Nation, near Hope, B.C., that means the construction of modular units that can be heated for much less than standard houses, while lasting longer in the province's often wet weather.

It's a far cry from previous years, when many of the homes were falling apart.

"They were dilapidated, one was condemned and demolished and the other cost us $100,000 just to renovate," said Crystal Sedore, Yale First Nation's housing manager.

'Passive' homes

Following a push by chief and council to clean up the community's housing problems, which included renovations to almost all of the existing and ageing homes, the First Nation partnered with Britco in 2016  — a company probably best known for its orange-topped office trailers — to construct six new family units. 

Built using what's known as "passive" technology, the units face the sun, have thicker walls and three layers of insulation which means monthly heating bills are reduced by as much as 80 per cent. Heat from the stove and dryer is also recycled to heat the rest of the house, which is air tight.

A modular housing unit is lowered into place on the Yale First Nation in B.C. (Yale First Nation)
The first families moved into the units on April 1 and although the units were built for around $50,000 more than that what Sedore calls "B.C. box houses," she estimates they'll save the First Nation thousands in heating and maintenance over the years.

"As far as we're aware, this is the very first passive house built on a reserve," said Sedore, proudly.

The community is so pleased that four more units are being constructed now, built inside a climate-controlled facility so moisture doesn't have a chance to seep into the skeleton of the house and form mould.

Tailor-made solutions

The Yale First Nation isn't alone in thinking outside the box when it comes to housing.

Since 1977, the Mohawk community of Kahnawake — located just outside Montreal — has been offering a unique loan program that allows residents there to build their own homes.

Called a "revolving loan fund," people borrow money towards construction of new houses and what they pay back for the loan goes into a pot that can be loaned to others.

"It gives us the ability to have the funds remain here, not with a financial institution, so it gives us control," said Iris Jacobs, manager of Kahnawake's housing department. "We're also providing affordable housing for our members."

Dave and Angie Moreno stand outside their new home on the Yale First Nation in B.C., built using state of the art, energy-efficient techniques. (Yale First Nation)
Jacobs estimates that the fund has helped over 500 community members build new homes, each of which is tailored to what they want and can afford and built to strict codes that she said exceeds provincial standards.

For those who can't afford to purchase a new home yet, the community also offers a "rent to equity" program which sees people live in a house with a portion of their monthly rent going into savings which is later matched by Kahnawake and can be put towards a down payment.

No 'one size fits all' approach

On the prairies, a group perhaps better known for flash-mob round-dances has also set its sights on the future of First Nations housing — without any help from the federal government.

Since 2015, Idle No More organizers have been working on the One House, Many Nations campaign, whose first order of business was crowdfunding a self-sufficient, off-the-grid "tiny house" which was built and delivered to a family in Saskatchewan by Winnipeg-based Mini Homes of Manitoba.

The group is fundraising again, this time to build a prototype for a unique village within the Opaskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba. Designed specifically for that community with the input of its citizens, the village will feature central buildings for things like cooking and eating, connected to private living spaces.

Idle No More partnered with Mini Homes of Manitoba to crowd-funded and built this 'tiny house' which is self-sufficient and almost completely off the grid. (One House, Many Nations)
"The challenge of this project is that it is simply not possible to solve the housing crisis on Indigenous lands with a single design," reads a description on its fundraising website.

"Each community is unique and will need to tailor and/or modify their own designs to meet their unique challenges."