Private ownership helps First Nation fix housing problems – by Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – February 6, 2012)

This article came from Wawatay News: http://www.wawataynews.ca/

Chief Franklin Paibomgai of Whitefish River First Nation is happy to talk housing. Despite the prevalence of housing woes all across northern Ontario First Nations, the days of housing concerns in Whitefish River – just north of Manitoulin Island – are a thing of the past.

Paibomgai laughs when asked about the last time housing has come up at a band meeting. Housing has not been on the agenda for years, he says. It used to be a constant thing – someone wanting a new home, or needing renovations on a current house. But now, thanks to a dramatic shift in how the community looks at housing, there are subdivisions going up and a community-owned construction company doing the work.

In 2003 Whitefish River’s housing situation was similar to many First Nations across northern Ontario. Existing houses were in poor condition. There was a long list of people wanting new homes. And the housing money provided by the federal government was barely enough to complete upkeep on existing houses, never mind build anything new.

Paibomgai and his council knew something drastic had to change. Jobs were scarce, houses were few and far between and members were leaving the reserve, looking for a better life elsewhere.

But as Paibomgai describes it, his council was moving ahead without knowing where it was going.

“No band council plans to fail,” he says. “We simply fail to plan.”

So the band council of the day changed course. For the next two years the community of Whitefish River got together to make a plan. Over one hundred people showed up regularly for the meetings, out of a community that numbered 300 at the time. And in the end the people of Whitefish River decided that despite all of the challenges facing the community – including health care, social issues and education – the first priority had to be housing.

The approach Whitefish River took to solve its housing problem was novel. The community knew that increased federal money was not going to happen, and that the annual funding they received from the government would never be enough to meet their needs. So instead of using federal money to build homes, the First Nation revamped its bylaws to allow it to co-sign mortgages for band members, who would basically be paying to build their own home.

According to Paibomgai, the benefits were threefold. First, having members getting loans from banks or credit agencies, backstopped by the band, substantially increased the amount of housing money the community had to spend. Second, members were suddenly able to customize the design, look and feel of their home, which made for a more attractive community. And third, a point Paibomgai repeatedly emphasizes, band members started taking more pride in their homes.

“You can see the difference between our old subdivisions and the new subdivision,” Paibomgai says. “The care of the units is completely different. Before there was no ownership, no investment, so windows would break and there would be no repairs. Now people are invested, and it is building pride into the community.”

The new system involves a financial officer from the band creating a payback plan for a member who wants to build a new home. Monthly payments are worked out based on what the individual can afford, and the size of the house is designed to meet that amount. And at the end of the payback period, whether it is 10 or 20 years, the band member takes ownership of the home and the property it is on.

Meanwhile the community has created its own construction company. Now band members get a loan for a house from a bank, and then the bank pays a Whitefish River construction company to build the house – which gives jobs back to the community and further increases the community’s pride over the houses.

Since 2005 the First Nation has built 50 homes without touching its federal housing money. New land has been set aside for a second subdivision, and the emergency housing that previously existed is completely gone. Plus nearly every able-bodied person who wants to work has a job in construction.

Paibomgai admits the process has not been easy. The First Nation has had to evict band members from their homes when they failed to meet the agreements that were signed. It has been hard for some members to meet the mortgage payment each month, although the chief says they are careful to budget for a payment plan that is feasible. But overall Paibomgai says the move has reaped dividends for his community.

“These are no longer just places we survive in,” he says. “These are places we put our spirit into. We’re building pride in our community. And it’s given us the added dimension of employment, but that wasn’t a driver. It just built its own inertia.”

“Housing is not on the council’s agenda now,” Paibomgai adds. “We’ve moved on to health, economy and education. And the best part is that people are moving back home.”

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