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Squamish Nation to build more than 400 affordable homes after 'landslide' referendum

An overwhelming majority of Squamish Nation members voted in support of a landmark affordable housing plan

Squamish Nation’s landmark plan to build more than 400 affordable homes across three sites is set to move forward after an overwhelming majority of members supported the projects in a land designation referendum.

On July 28, 85 per cent of 548 Squamish members voted strongly in favour of the three sites chosen for diverse multi-unit affordable housing projects exclusively to house members. 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 developments are part of the Bring Squamish Home project, which 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.

“This was a landslide vote in favour for housing, as it is the largest priority for the Nation,” Sarah Silva, CEO of Hiy̓ám̓ Housing Society̓, said.

“This is our first referendum of this scale for affordable housing and were feeling excited and hopeful that we are one step closer to bringing our members home within a generation.”

Council’s hope is to designate six parcels of land to affordable housing over the next two years, with the nation’s goal to build 1,000 units of housing. Together, the six sites represent the largest land designation for affordable housing in the Nation’s history.

The Nation’s plan is to build a range of affordable housing for their people, as well as address the various needs that exist in the community with the support of provincial and federal funds. The multi-unit dwellings will offer options for Elders, families fleeing violence, members on low income or at risk of homelessness, and students as well as moderate income earners.

Now that members have voted in favour, construction on the first project, a four-storey multi-family complex at Welch and Mathias Road in the community of X̱wemelch'stn (Capilano IR No.5) in North Vancouver, will start this fall.

Silva said the project already received BC Housing funding in September, and it was hoped the building would be completed within 16 months.

Located next to the Nation’s Elders Centre, the proposed 94-unit affordable housing project will include mixed-use dwellings for independent Elders, families and youth offered at subsidized rents, a co-op grocery store and community garden.

Under the province’s Community Housing Fund, 20 per cent of the units must be rented at a deep subsidy, reserved for people on disability or income assistance. Half of the units must be for households making up to $48,000 per year, costing no more than 30 per cent of their income. The remaining 30 per cent of the units will be offered at below-market rates for moderate income earning households earning up to $74,000.

“The community has been asking for a long time for more diversity in housing types and equality in the target populations served,” Silva said.

At the moment, more than 50 per cent of Squamish Nation’s 4,000-strong population is living off reserve, with 1,000 members waiting for housing. Some members have been waiting up to 30 years to return to one of the Nation’s communities.

“Many have been pushed out and are paying very unaffordable rents and are thrilled to be able to come home and be close to family, culture and community support,” Silva said.

Silva added that the aim was to create “a wholistic community which will foster positive intergenerational relationships.”

The second site chosen 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 in a 28-storey tower.

The third site in the community of Siy̓ích'em (Seaichem IR No. 16) in Squamish, west of Government Road, between Brackendale and Garibaldi, will 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.

Both projects are still in the early stages of development. All three locations were chosen due to their proximity to community amenities, utility services and in some cases, transit locations.

Silva said the next three sites to be developed include a location in the Mortenson Lands in Squamish, and another two sites in North Vancouver, one at Capilano Reserve along Marine Drive and another on the Mission Reserve which is currently used by Eslhá 7an Learning Centre.  

In an interview with North Shore News earlier this month, Khelsilem (Dustin Rivers), Squamish Nation council spokesman, said introducing affordable housing on reserve with subsidized rents was “a bit of a paradigm shift” but it was a “really important” move to be able to house more members.

He said the reality was the Nation didn’t have the means to do it on their own and will be able to build a lot more housing in a faster timeframe, by taking out low interest rate government loans to fund construction.

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.

While members wait for the projects to be built, Silva said the Nation and Hiy̓ám̓ Housing was also developing long-term programs to provide housing security for the community, on and off reserve, including a two-year pilot program called Squamish Nation Assistance with Rent Program (SNARP) and a new Home Loan program where members can access a mortgage to construct a home in a community.

She said the message to members was, “to be encouraged, as this is only the start.”

“We are making plans so that one-day housing is no longer the No. 1 concern,” Silva said.

“They [members] can have hope for owning a home or having a rental opportunity in the community.”

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