Are Canada’s political parties paying enough attention to rental housing?
Indigenous housing providers say more help is needed to help the most vulnerable people in the Fraser Valley. Will they be heard?
Four years ago, Margaret Pfoh tried to rent an apartment closer to her new job. She filled out an application that asked for her income, her references, and her employment history, and was told she was a perfect candidate. When she arrived at the apartment building to check out the unit, Pfoh texted the person that she was at the door.
“I watched him walk out of the office and saw his face fall when he looked at me,” said Pfoh. “He walked by and pretended not to see me. I texted him. I was ghosted. I can tell you, if I were not Indigenous, I wonder if he would have answered that door for me.”
Pfoh’s employment history wasn’t just OK or decent. It was phenomenal. A Mission resident then and now, she was apartment hunting in West Vancouver after having been named the CEO of the West Vancouver-based Aboriginal Housing Management Association, an organization that represents 41 Indigenous housing providers. Before that, she had been the CEO of Mamele’awt Qweesome Housing Society (MQHS), one of those housing providers that works in the Fraser Valley to provide a “culturally safe place to rest.”
Having worked for decades trying to improve housing for Indigenous people, Pfoh had a front-row seat to the current crisis and saw how it—and the pandemic—is particularly affecting her most vulnerable clientele. Indigenous women fleeing violence, seniors, and youth aging out of care have all found themselves hard hit by the increasing scarcity of affordable housing.
“Those target populations in particular, the vulnerability has only deepened with COVID and the impacts on the current real estate,” she said. So Pfoh has taken a leadership role in initiatives like Vote Housing, which aim to get the political parties to commit to solving the housing and homelessness puzzle. The results, so far, have been mixed.
“It’s optimistic that all of the platforms—the NDP, the Liberals, the Conservatives—are all wanting to talk about housing affordability, but for the most part, I fear, they’re focusing on the home-ownership level, which will once again marginalize the deeply impoverished, which is largely Indigenous.”
Pfoh says there needs to be a focus on all levels of housing, from transitional housing to rentals and, finally, to home ownership. She says progress has been made in recent decades, with Indigenous housing groups creating options that aren’t bound up in what she says is an outdated on-reserve/off-reserve dichotomy that marginalizes the many Indigenous people who live in cities and towns.
But as advances have been made on some fronts, Pfoh says other changes have left Canada’s poorest people paying vastly more for supposedly “affordable” housing.
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‘Affordability for who?’
“Back in the day, we could charge rents as cheap as $32 for people who had zero income. Most of the rents were set between $100 and $300,” she said. The implementation of a new affordability scale has left the very lowest rents around $500, with people often charged closer to $700. “Now, the concept of affordability is simply below market and… the markets have gone crazy. The availability and affordability of rents in general have gone off the scale. So the government comes back in and talks in their election platforms about affordability. But affordability for who?”
And that situation is one that affects people across the valley, Indigenous or not. Pfoh is largely complimentary of the work from the BC government, applauding it as a leader among the provinces, though she would like to see it enable non-profits to buy up rental buildings before investors do so. She now hopes the federal governments will step up to address the housing affordability crisis. In 2018, a proposal was submitted to the government to create a “For Indigenous By Indigenous National Housing Strategy.” As for municipalities, which have some of the greatest power over housing policy, they seem largely unsure of how Indigenous people fit into their overall housing strategies, according to a report commissioned by the AMHA.
Meanwhile, Indigenous organizations are increasingly working—often together—to address the shortfall on their own. Indigenous housing organizations and First Nations are behind some of the valley’s most significant rental housing projects. Those include several new rental apartment buildings constructed and operated by MQHS, along with local First Nations’ plansto build housing on property near Heritage Park and on the former home of MSA Hospital in central Abbotsford.
While emphasizing that she doesn’t speak for First Nations governments and the challenges they face, Pfoh pointed to a recent MQHS project in Abbotsford that includes a partnership with Abbotsford Community Services’ Autumn House Youth Housing Program, which gives homes to teens who may not otherwise have a place to live.
“The targeted population is a culturally safe environment for Indigenous populations, but [housing providers] also recognize that we are building a sense of community and if anybody is looking for a safe place to live, they have opened their doors for them,” she said. “We’re seeing tremendous innovation across the spectrum of housing where, despite the deplorable history that has ostracized many of our Indigenous people, the Indigenous organizations are opening their doors in their arms to a holistic sense of community.”