ONPHA working with Indigenous providers to boost housing supply, self-reliance

The Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association has set ambitious goals in its plans to address Indigenous housing needs. With one-in-four Indigenous persons in Ontario living in poverty, affordable housing is seen as an important way to reduce stressors faced by so many First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, both on- and off-reserve.

Discrimination in the Ontario rental housing market is a very real issue plaguing Indigenous renters trying to find a place to call home. Stereotypes, such as the belief that Indigenous tenants are more likely to be involved in illicit activities, hinder their ability to secure housing. “It’s especially poignant in the private market, especially now, when we see such low vacancy rates, that the competition is high, and so (…) a landlord’s implicit bias might show itself by preferring, and selecting, non-Indigenous applicants,” explains Sara Fegelman, policy and research advisor at the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association.

By the same token, colonial attitudes have left profound marks. One-quarter of Indigenous people in Ontario live in poverty, lacking resources for necessities of life such as nourishing food, adequate shelter, and clothing, and they are also over-represented in jails, emergency rooms and homeless shelters.

“This legacy of colonialism that continues today has contributed to the displacement of Indigenous people from their lands and cultures, and histories of trauma that get passed on through generations,” Fegelman adds.

Community housing, while far from being a cure for intergenerational trauma, lessens some of the socioeconomic impact and, through culturally relevant support services, is a simple, cost-effective solution that literally saves lives.

While some Indigenous people in urban and rural settings may have had some luck in securing community housing through Indigenous housing providers, Ontario faces a significant shortfall, with waiting lists growing due to low turnover and high demand. And with the Indigenous population in Canada growing at four times the national rate, 42.5% from 2006 to 2016, the housing situation will only get more dire.

“We’ve seen housing named in many different reports, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report, the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls … Housing is a key indicator of progress along the path to reconciliation,” says Fegelman.

And Indigenous communities in Ontario cannot wait any longer for solutions.

The Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association has ideas on how to strengthen and support the Indigenous community housing sector: by building at least 22,000 subsidized Indigenous-owned and operated affordable housing units over the next 10 years. And that is just one of the six recommendations presented almost a year ago in the Urban and Rural Indigenous Housing Plan for Ontario.

Ideas for a stronger sector

Working with Indigenous partners, ONPHA is already involved in several initiatives addressing service gaps and challenges facing Indigenous communities. They have an active Urban and Rural Indigenous Housing Advisory Committee. And 46 out of 56 of Indigenous non-profit housing providers in Ontario are also active ONPHA members.

“We have been advocating for the plan since its launch in May 2020, and so the focus for us now is the development of a community-led implementation plan, which is really us trying to lay out the next steps really clearly to all levels of government, and any other partners that may want to be involved,” Fegelman adds.

The Urban and Rural Indigenous Plan for Ontario, also known as URIPHO — or just the Plan — highlights the fiduciary obligations of government toward Indigenous people, including for housing (both on and off-reserve), which is also made clear in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and reinforced in numerous rulings of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Developed with active and ongoing participation with Indigenous housing providers, it offers an in-depth analysis of the gaps in Ontario for Indigenous households living in inadequate and unaffordable housing, identifies the economic costs and benefits associated with providing the necessary affordable Indigenous-housing units, and presents a series of recommendations to implement the plan, including the construction of 22,000 units and the development of support and cultural programs. 

The private sector is also identified as a potential partner.

“We talk a lot about the different levers the government can pull to incentivize the private sector to build more affordable housing, different tax incentives that can help ensure more affordable options are included as part of larger development (…) like a mixed-income building,” adds Fegelman.

One idea is the dollar-for-dollar Low-Income Housing Tax Credit that would allow investors to take a federal tax credit equal to a percentage of the development cost of affordable housing. In the last 30 years, it has played a role in the creation of 3 million housing units in the United States.

Making it real

The ONPHA plan recognizes the importance of Indigenous housing providers as community experts to lead the development and implementation of the Plan, and is focused on bringing together and engaging First Nations, Métis and Inuit housing providers from across the province.

“Indigenous housing providers are regarded as community-housing experts and understand the deep need facing their communities, as well as the solutions needed to alleviate the grave situation that currently exists,” says Frances Sanderson, chair of ONPHA’s Urban and Rural Indigenous Housing Advisory Committee and executive-director of Nishnawbe Homes Inc.

“For that reason, it’s critical for Indigenous housing to be developed and led by Indigenous people, making ONPHA’s Urban and Rural Indigenous Housing Plan for Ontario a home-grown solution that assists providers, people and communities.”

Moving from strategy to execution planning is important to support the Indigenous community in developing project-specific proposals. To help move things along, the Community Housing Transformation Centre has awarded $49,999 to support its realization. It is also supported with funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

“As part of ONPHA’s commitment to stand for justice and against racism, this work is an important step in coming together,” says Marlene Coffey, ONPHA’s CEO. “We are very pleased to be working with partners to specifically strengthen and support the Indigenous community-housing sector in Ontario.”

The Centre’s partnership with ONPHA will expedite actions that will lead to concrete proposals and initiatives to address the many service gaps and challenges facing Indigenous communities.

“Partnerships like this are critical for moving the Implementation Plan forward, and ONPHA is pleased to see recognition of the importance of this work through the support received from both the Centre and CMHC,” says Helen Harris, senior manager of ONPHA’s Centre for Housing Excellence.

The first draft of the plan will be presented to a gathering of Indigenous housing sector leaders at ONPHA’s annual Indigenous Gathering on May 5. The Gathering is only open to Indigenous housing provider staff and board members in Ontario. Those interested in attending can register here.

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