Affording Ontario: The uncertain future of Indigenous housing co-ops 

London’s Native Inter-tribal Housing Co-operative has had to sell off properties to make ends meet. What will the federal election mean for its survival?
By Josh Sherman - Published on Oct 04, 2019
The Native Inter-tribal Housing Co-operative was founded in the early ’80s to provide affordable housing for Indigenous people in London. (Mary Baxter)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle cost-of-living issues in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1; click here to read Part 2.

Lloyd Butch Stevenson has watched with concern as the Indigenous housing co-op he co-founded in the early ’80s, in London, has shrunk over the years.

At its height, the Native Inter-tribal Housing Co-operative encompassed 62 properties, including townhouses, plexes, and detached homes, scattered across the southwestern Ontario city. But when its federal subsidies began expiring in October 2013, as per agreements with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (through which the project received funding), the co-op began selling properties. “It was basically for capital … to keep the other units in repair because, without the subsidy, we didn’t have enough money,” Stevenson says of the property sales.

A recently announced component of the Liberals’ National Housing Strategy, which extends funding eligibility to co-op and non-profit units that are no longer subsidized, could provide relief for housing providers such as Native Inter-tribal — but many are concerned that the results of the upcoming federal election could mean a change in plans.

Native Inter-tribal was founded to provide affordable housing for Indigenous people — it’s one of 56 Indigenous non-profit and co-op housing providers in the province, according to advocacy group Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Statistics Canada data from 2016 indicates that 3 per cent of London’s population is Indigenous. Yet, according to London’s 2018 Community Enumeration report, 29 per cent of homeless individuals and families surveyed were of Indigenous ancestry or identity.

Marc Maracle, who is a member of ONPHA’s Urban Aboriginal Housing Advisory Committee, says that the vast majority of Indigenous people in Ontario live off reserve in urban or rural areas. Women and girls in particular, he says, are at risk of experiencing homelessness. “The consequences of not being able to provide safe, affordable housing, in terms of existing stock, as well as being able to ensure a new supply — it’s just creating and exacerbating a bad housing situation and making it worse,” says Maracle.

Stevenson says that the co-op model offers one possible solution for Indigenous housing shortfalls. “It went more back to earlier Indigenous living,” he explains. “A lot of the Natives around here lived in longhouses, you know. That was basically something like an apartment building, except it’s all on one floor.”

And the way co-ops are governed, he adds, “really fit in with an Indigenous lifestyle.” At Native Inter-tribal, members vote to elect a board of directors — all of whom must be residents of the co-op — responsible for supervising management and creating policy for members’ approval. Residents pay housing charges, which are approved by members and function much like monthly rents (although they’re generally below market). Subsidized rents at Native Inter-tribal work under a rent-geared-to-income model through which residents pay no more than 30 per cent of their earnings. Unsubsidized units range from $560 to $920 a month, but the higher end can be a barrier to access. “A lot of Indigenous people cannot afford $1,000 a month, so we had been having a hard time keeping them [the units] full, which affects our bottom line,” says Stevenson, adding that, within the past two months, vacancies have been filled.

Native Inter-tribal originally received subsidies through the Urban Native Housing Program, which the CMHC created in 1978. Co-ops continue to receive funding for properties only until the corresponding mortgages are paid off, for a period up to 35 years. As a result, 25 existing Native Inter-tribal units no longer have federal subsidies and are at risk because their operating agreements ran out before April 2016.

However, the second phase of the federal government’s $500 million Community Housing Initiative, unveiled in June and scheduled to come into effect in April 2020, would extend funding to co-op and non-profit housing providers that have lost subsidies. The CMHC would first target units that have not had funding since April 1, 2016, and those whose coverage will expire before March 31, 2027. Some 32 of the 57 Native Inter-tribal units meet the criteria, but the CMHC suggests that the scope of the program may broaden. “Further work is underway to determine how the program may be available to select eligible former Federally administered community housing providers whose Agreements expired prior to April 2016,” senior media-relations officer Audrey-Anne Coulombe told TVO.org via email.

Adam Vaughan, who was a parliamentary secretary focusing on housing and urban affairs and is a Liberal candidate for Toronto’s Spadina–Fort York riding, says that the program has been designed “explicitly” with co-ops such as Stevenson’s in mind. “There is an on-ramp back into subsidy,” says Vaughan. “If CMHC needs to be pushed, I’ll be the first one out there pushing them to do it.”

Vaughan says that the intention is for the plan to be rolled out in stages and that co-ops with subsidies that expired prior to April 2016 will be re-enrolled on a “case-by-case” basis. Some that have since entered into funding arrangements with provincial or municipal governments would not qualify.

More subsidies for urban Indigenous affordable housing across the province are set to expire in the coming years. “Worst-case scenario is that [the] end of operating agreements equals homelessness, and we already know that Indigenous people in cities are vastly, overwhelmingly represented in the homeless statistics,” says Maracle, who is also the executive director of the Ottawa-based Gignol Non-Profit Housing Corporation, which is facing its own looming loss of subsidies.

MP hopefuls in London outline different solutions when asked how they would address Indigenous housing challenges such as those faced by Native Inter-tribal. Liz Snelgrove, Conservative candidate for London West, says that the party would consult and partner with Indigenous peoples on the housing file. “We have heard that co-operative housing can allow for a culturally appropriate environment, and it encourages self-determination,” she told TVO.org via email.

Green party candidate Mary Ann Hodge says that, if elected, her party would establish a national co-op housing strategy to improve financing options for residential projects. “We have very robust policies in support of co-op housing,” she wrote in an email. “Although a number of policies are directed more towards the creation of new units, we also support the retrofit of all buildings to make them more energy efficient.”

Candidate Shawna Lewkowitz says that the NDP would implement a National Indigenous Housing Strategy and offer targeted support for co-ops. “We would want to work with the local Indigenous groups to see what the needs are specific to London, as well as the municipality to make sure that anything that we’re doing at the federal level also meets the local needs of Indigenous communities here,” she says.

Kate Young, who has represented the riding as a Liberal for the past four years, says that her office arranged a meeting earlier this year between London Indigenous co-op stakeholders and the CMHC to discuss their needs and new funding options. “I am very much looking forward to continuing to work with the group to support their goals of maintaining their existing housing, and developing new units,” she wrote in an email.

Without additional funding, Stevenson says, his co-op will lose more below-market units on top of the five it has already liquidated. “We’re going to have no choice but to sell them. And if we keep selling them off slowly, it’ll keep the other units going, but barely — by the skin of our teeth.”

Now 70, Stevenson isn’t concerned about his own long-term housing needs: he’s worried about the younger generations. “The future is the ones that are going to need it down the road,” he says.

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