Squamish First Nation set to decide on building over 400 affordable rental homes

Jul 22 2021, 8:02 pm

Members of the Squamish First Nation are set to vote next week on the band’s most consequential housing approach since the 2019 referendum on Senakw.

This time around, however, the defining difference is these new homes — totalling about 404 units across three locations — will be 100% affordable, and for the exclusive use of Squamish members.

The referendum on July 28 seeks final approval from the community on proceeding with the first three of six affordable housing sites on reserve, with the First Nation’s recently established not-for-profit Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Housing Society (HSHS) leading the charge.

This includes the Mathias Road Site at the northwest corner of Welch Street and Mathias Road at the Capilano reserve, just east of the Lions Gate Bridge in North Vancouver. It would be developed into a multi-family complex with 94 affordable units for independent elders, families, and youth, as well as a co-op grocery store and a community garden.

Urban Arts Architecture is the design firm of the Mathias Road project, which would be the first site to be developed, with construction beginning in Fall 2021 if it is approved.

Xwemelch'stn Housing Project squamish first nation capilano reserve north vancouver

Artistic rendering of the Xwemelch’stn Housing Project on Mathias Road at Squamish First Nation’s Capilano Reserve No. 5 in North Vancouver. (Urban Arts Architecture/Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Housing Society)

Xwemelch'stn Housing Project squamish first nation capilano reserve north vancouver

Artistic rendering of the Xwemelch’stn Housing Project on Mathias Road at Squamish First Nation’s Capilano Reserve No. 5 in North Vancouver. (Urban Arts Architecture/Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Housing Society)

The most significant of the first three projects will be located on the other side of North Vancouver, right next to TransLink’s Phibbs bus exchange near the north end of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.

This under-utilized, triangular-shaped Seymour site on Orwell Street is envisioned to become a 28-storey tower with 280 affordable rental homes. HCMA is the design firm, but the project is still in the early stages of planning, which will see a final design refined based on consultation, funding availability, and partnership opportunities.

squamish first nation housing seymour site

Conceptual form of a 28-storey affordable rental housing tower on the Squamish First Nation’s Seymour site next to TransLink’s Phibbs exchange. (Squamish First Nation)

squamish first nation housing seymour site

Conceptual form of a 28-storey affordable rental housing tower on the Squamish First Nation’s Seymour site next to TransLink’s Phibbs exchange. The building forms beyond the red triangle are based on the District of North Vancouver’s community plans for the area. (Squamish First Nation)

squamish first nation housing seymour site

Conceptual form of a 28-storey affordable rental housing tower on the Squamish First Nation’s Seymour site next to TransLink’s Phibbs exchange. Other building forms as depicted are based on the District of North Vancouver’s community plans for the area. (Squamish First Nation)

A third project located on Government Road in Squamish is relatively minor, featuring a four-storey modular building with 30 homes. Architectural firm DIALOG recently completed the design process, and construction could begin in early 2022.

In an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized on Tuesday, Squamish councillor and spokesperson Khelsilem said these three sites are being brought to the community for a vote at this time as a considerable amount of design and planning work has been done on each project, there are already utility connections to the sites, and at least partial funding is already confirmed.

The remaining three sites, which still need to undergo more preliminary design and planning work, entail redeveloping the aging Eslhá7an complex at 345 West 5th Street in North Vancouver City with replacement and additional housing.

Another site is on Marine Drive, located immediately southeast of the Lions Gate Bridge’s north interchange. This new housing would be situated next to the planned future headquarters of the Squamish.

The sixth site is located in the Squamish area, near the Stawamus reserve.

squamish first nation housing government road site

Artistic rendering of the Government Road affordable housing site in Squamish, BC. (Squamish First Nation)

After more design, planning, and government funding work is conducted this year, First Nation leaders will return to their members for a second vote to approve the last three sites. These referendums are required in order for the First Nation to put any mortgageable interest on reserve land.

All six sites could generate a combined total of approximately 1,000 homes just for Squamish members.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here to move forward on a significant volume of housing for Squamish people on the North Shore and in Squamish,” said Khelsilem.

He says the transit-oriented locations at the Marine Drive and Phibbs exchange sites could potentially see greater density, and it would also align with the form of the new high-density developments in the Lower Capilano and Seylynn Village areas approved by the municipalities.

But multi-family housing comes as a big leap for the First Nation.

Over the past decade and a half, and historically, the Squamish have only built single-family homes. A 2006-enacted program sets aside $2.2 million annually towards the construction of 15 single-detached homes each year, but this initiative has not come close to meeting the demand of members, with a backlogged construction pipeline that is now only reaching the homes from the 2011 waitlist.

Capilano Indian Reserve No. 5

Squamish First Nation’s Capilano Indian Reserve No. 5 on the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge. (Google Maps)

As another housing affordability measure, the leadership is exploring the creation of an on-reserve mortgage program, providing members who meet bank qualifications to receive a mortgage to help fund the construction of a single-family detached structure on reserve. If approved, HSHS would be given the responsibility of administering the program.

For the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the leaders have also increased the budget for the single-family housing program by 50% from $2.2 million to $3.3 million to help accelerate the pace of new construction starts.

“We’ve been told loud and clear housing is a priority for our members, but for a long time we were only approaching it with a one-size fits all approach that doesn’t fit for everybody because of the different needs,” said Khelsilem.

“One of the big things that comes up with the community is we’ve largely focused on the building of single-attached houses for decades.”

To build housing faster, the leaders are pushing to charge nominal-to-affordable rents for members living in the future multi-family buildings on reserve, which Khelsilem says is a new concept for many people in the community as they currently do not pay rent.

Diversifying and expanding the band’s income is necessary as the current sources are insufficient for not only covering construction financing but the ongoing maintenance costs of the multi-family buildings over their lifespan.

Xwemelch'stn Housing Project squamish first nation capilano reserve north vancouver

Artistic rendering of the Xwemelch’stn Housing Project on Mathias Road at Squamish First Nation’s Capilano Reserve No. 5 in North Vancouver. (Urban Arts Architecture/Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Housing Society)

For example, the Mathias Road project would offer a mix of affordable rents for a range of incomes, with 20% (19 units) deeply subsidized starting at $375 monthly for a studio or one-bedroom unit, 50% (49 units) at housing income limits starting at $837 monthly for a studio or one-bedroom unit, and the remaining 30% (27 units) as affordable moderate income homes starting at $1,030 monthly for a one-bedroom unit.

Incorporating rent into the financial models for the projects is timely, as it would allow the First Nation to take advantage of the significant level of funding currently being made available by the federal and provincial governments for affordable housing. If there is a change of government, these funding sources may not always be available.

“One of the things we’ve been explaining to people is that we can build hundreds of units per year if we sort of change our thinking around how we get affordable housing built by using low-interest government loans in addition to government subsidies, which governments are now offering to us to create affordable housing,” he said.

“By taking out those low-interest rate loans and the subsidies, we can build a lot of affordable housing, but it also going to require us to charge rents so that we can cover both the loans and building maintenance. It involves borrowing money to be able to build affordable housing, but that is the way we can build hundreds of units as opposed to five to 15 homes each year.”

Xwemelch'stn Housing Project squamish first nation capilano reserve north vancouver

Artistic rendering of the Xwemelch’stn Housing Project on Mathias Road at Squamish First Nation’s Capilano Reserve No. 5 in North Vancouver. (Urban Arts Architecture/Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Housing Society)

As well, introducing multi-family housing allows the Squamish to more efficiently use its developable sites on reserve, compared to the current scenario of only building single-family housing, which requires more land given its low density.

Accelerating the pace of providing affordable housing on reserve would remove members from the challenging housing market in Metro Vancouver, now exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic and the ever-growing supply shortage from population and economic growth.

The First Nation has over 4,000 members, with 60% living on reserve before the pandemic. Over 1,000 members are on the housing waitlist, with some of the most recent housing allocations offered to members who have been on the waitlist for over 30 years.

“We’re still seeing very expensive market rental and home ownership, of course, and this negatively affects our members as they are forced to leave their home community and have to move further away or find employment in other cities, provinces, and even countries, where they’re able to earn more and have a lower cost of living. Those who remain here and live close to the community financially struggle,” said Khelsilem.

“We think there is going to be a huge need for these new homes on the day they open, and we’re going to see this need rise and grow.”

During the height of the pandemic, the First Nation provided emergency support to members, such as allocating hotel rooms for those who needed to self-isolate, providing meal assistance delivery and pick-up, and offering financial relief on utility bills and rent supplements to members who experienced a drop in income or working hours.

As for Senakw, the band is looking to commence construction on the project’s first phase on the west side of the Burrard Street Bridge by the end of this year. When all phases are complete, there will be 6,000 homes, with the vast majority of the units dedicated as market rental homes available to the general public. While Senakw is largely being pursued by the First Nation as a significant long-term, revenue-generating opportunity, there are plans to set aside about 300 of the homes as below-market rentals for members.

senakw squamish first nation vancouver

2021 artistic rendering of Senakw. (Revery Architecture/Westbank/Squamish First Nation)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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