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Squamish Nation members to vote on historic land designation for 3 affordable housing sites

On July 28, members will be asked to vote in housing referendum

The future of Squamish Nation council’s plans to create diverse, affordable on-reserve housing options to “bring their people home” will soon be placed in the hands of members.

On July 28, Squamish members will be asked to vote in a land designation referendum for three sites chosen for multi-unit affordable housing projects to provide hundreds of new homes exclusively for members of the First Nation. Two sites are located in communities in North Vancouver, at Mathias Road and Orwell Street, and the third is in Squamish, at Government Road.  

The Bring Squamish Home project is being led by the Nation’s Hiy̓ám̓ Housing Society as part of a bigger goal to house every Squamish member within a generation, or 25 years.

Squamish Nation council voted in 2018 to form the not-for-profit, recognizing the acute housing need Squamish members have.

“Fifty-four per cent of our [4,000] members are currently living away from reserve land and often are living in difficult and expensive housing situations,” said Khelsilem, Dustin Rivers, Squamish Nation council spokesman.

“They're often paying market rents that are quite expensive. Paying sometimes 50 per cent or more of their gross income toward shelter and housing."

He said the desire of the Nation was to build lots of different types of affordable housing options for their people, as well as address the various needs that exist in the community. The multi-unit dwellings would offer options for Elders, families fleeing violence, members on low income or at risk of homelessness, and students.

The project at Welch and Mathias Road, in the community of X̱wemelch'stn (Capilano IR No.5) in North Vancouver, has already received BC Housing funding and seed funding from CMHC and would be the first to be developed if the land designation is approved.

Located next to the Nation’s Elders Centre, the proposed 94-unit affordable housing project would include mixed-use dwellings for independent elders, families and youth, a co-op grocery store and community garden. The buildings would include 59 independent Elders housing units, 19 family housing units and 16 youth housing units.

Squamish Nation says the target population chosen for the project was based on the community engagement and the results of the 2019 Housing Needs Survey.

“The dwelling will foster intergenerational relationships and is a unique opportunity to re-imagine the traditional Squamish longhouse living practice of shared accommodation,” Squamish Nation states.

Construction could begin as early as fall 2021 if all goes to plan.

The second site is at Orwell Street in North Vancouver where the Ch’ich’éx̱ wí7ḵw village once stood (Seymour Creek IR No. 2), north of Phibbs Exchange.

The site has the potential to fit three blocks of housing and 280 units with a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom studios.

The project is still in its early stages of development and its design, timeline and plans would be refined based on community consultation, funding availability and partnership opportunities after the vote.

The third site in the community of Siy̓ích'em (Seaichem IR No. 16) in Squamish, west of Government Road, between Brackendale and Garibaldi, could accommodate about 30 units with a mix of studio, one-bed and two-bedroom units. The proposed design is currently for a modular four-storey structure, but the timeline and final design is also dependent on funding opportunities and the land designation approval.

“All three locations in the referendum vote for the land designation are close to community amenities, utility services and in some cases, transit locations,” Khelsilem said.

“These sites are ready to go and we can put housing on them quite quickly.”

Before Hiy̓ám̓ Housing Society can begin construction and secure the leases and funding needed to build, Indigenous Services Canada, under the Indian Act, requires that Nation members vote in a secret ballot referendum to decide whether to designate land for the use of affordable housing. A majority of members, 50 per cent plus one of voters, will need to vote in favour of the land designation.

Khelsilem said the move to offer affordable housing on reserve was “a bit of a paradigm shift” but it was a “really important” move to be able to house more members.

“I think our community members who have lived in the community and live on a reserve, and probably have some sort of housing security right now are wondering why we're going to start charging rent for some of our housing on reserve,” he said.

“The reality of it, the genuine truth, is we're going to be able to build a lot more housing, by taking out low interest rate government loans to fund the construction.”

He said, for example, the 94-unit project on Mathias Road is set to cost around $30 million.

“The Nation doesn't have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on these types of projects on our own, we really need federal and provincial funding to support us through that. The opportunity is that by using the federal provincial funding and loans, we can build a lot of housing really quickly. There would be a nominal rent charge to help cover the costs of the mortgage and help cover the costs of ongoing maintenance and operations.”

Khelsilem noted the opportunity to have cheaper rent and come back to the community would be a welcome relief for a lot of members living off reserve.

“We have people paying, $2,600 to $2,800 for a two-bedroom in Coquitlam and they could come back and live in these units that are going to be $900 or even less,” he said. “Some of them might be $1,200 to $1,500, for a two-bedroom.

“We are trying to provide a lot of options for people. A lot of people in our Nation are paying really high expensive rents elsewhere and would love the opportunity to come back and pay an affordable rent.”

Members who want to secure housing will go through an application process through the Hiy̓ám̓ Housing Society, which would be based off of need for some units.

If there isn’t enough support from members in the vote, there's the potential that the Nation could lose out on the funding that they’ve secured so far, said Khelsilem. 

“It will make it difficult to access funding for future projects,” he said. “If the Nation was to try and do it on our own or look at other funding models, it means that the rents are probably going to have to be much more expensive, because we wouldn't be able to get the subsidies or the low interest rate loans that we're getting with CMHC or BC Housing.”

Council’s hope is to designate six parcels of land to affordable housing over the next two years.

Together, the six sites represent the largest land designation for affordable housing in the Nation’s history.

Khelsilem said he didn’t want to predict what might happen in the vote later this month.

“I think the biggest challenge is getting the word out and getting our people informed about what's happening,” he said.

“We know that our people really want affordable housing options.”

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.