New construction projects, renovations, and plans for the future of housing in Kahnawake were unveiled last week, as the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) announced a major revamp of the Housing Department’s structure and initiatives.
“It’s taken a lot of collaboration and communication between both the administrative and the political body to get to this point,” said Onerahtókha Marquis, executive director of the MCK, who acknowledged that the community has waited for some time for a positive update from the housing department. “There are so many individual employees within the MCK who have done trying, endless work to get us to this point.”
The updates were shared at a press conference last Friday, April 21, where Marquis was joined by MCK grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, MCK chief Ryan Montour, MCK housing director Areti Malliarou, and MCK executive operations officer Alan John Rice.
Montour, who is the lead MCK chief on the housing portfolio, shared news that construction would be completed on “Project 7,” a renovation project that’s covered under Section 95 of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)’s project funding opportunities. CMHC provides financial assistance for on-reserve housing projects. Montour hopes they’ll be finished by this time next year.
“In the short-term, which is this fiscal year, we are building three new houses,” Montour said. Of those three homes, one will be fully accessible for community members with disabilities, providing much-needed supportive accommodation. “We’re at a point now where, yes, we can build houses for community members.”
In recent months, complaints have been levelled that there are units sitting empty in Kahnawake. Community members had wondered if houses were being left empty and unrenovated around the new development area. But according to Malliarou, those units are currently being worked on.
“The reason for seeing the few empty units is because we are trying hard now to renovate them,” said Malliarou. “We have already started discussing the selection process for who the new tenants will go in. This will happen by the end of May or early June.”
Rice also noted that it’s true there are currently some units that are empty, but reiterated that the MCK is actively working to make them habitable again. He said there are currently five units that are empty.
“Those units are going for a full repair. Four of them will be done much quicker, but one has structural damage to it,” he said. He noted that two of the units are located in the new development area and that four units are family units.
According to MCK’s annual report, they spent only $1,463 on housing repairs in the 2021-2022 fiscal year. That has increased immensely to $265,102 projected for housing repairs for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
Future housing needs
Montour said that right now, there are 101 units of MCK community housing. By the end of the building season, he hopes that there will be 105. However, that number is far below the number of units needed to meet community housing demands.
“There are 86 people that have immediate housing needs now,” Montour said. “There have been identified 27 community members who have dilapidated houses that need repairs.”
The housing study revealed that 300 units are needed in Kahnawake to meet housing needs over the next 10 years. Though this number includes private units as well as community housing, Montour said that 116 units of that 300 will be MCK housing. This number is in addition to the 105 units that will hopefully be available this year, meaning that around 220 MCK-owned houses need to be available to meet community demands over the next decade, assuming the private sector can build the rest.
The housing study conducted to land on these numbers was carried out by Brant and Associates, an independent consulting firm.
“It’s a really comprehensive report, it’s really eye-opening in terms of the challenges we face ahead,” Montour said. The report will be made public, he added. Implementing the recommendations of the report will be a big undertaking. “It’s massive. That’s why we need help from the private sector, the business sector, and those partnerships.”
Updates were shared about an increase in available funds allocated for future housing initiatives. A 2013 loan of $1.2 million that the MCK operations department had borrowed from housing reserves to cover operational deficiencies at the time has now been returned. This loan had accrued interest, meaning $2.2 million has been successfully returned to the housing reserves for future use in community housing projects.
The MCK also announced that they have adopted a policy not to refer to community housing as “social housing” going forward.
“The MCK is in the business of providing hands up and helping our community members, so we’ll be referring to it as community housing from now on in all aspects, whether that be print media or policy making,” he said. “We don’t want our community members to feel less-than. We’re 100 percent involved with our community members.”
In that vein, Montour noted that continual efforts are being made to improve communication between community members and the Housing Unit. Most recently, a quarterly community newsletter has been launched to share housing updates with Kahnawa’kehró:non, and a community meeting concerning housing is being planned for early June.
He also asked the community to reach out to the housing department, should they have a bright idea for partnership.
“We are asking community members, private businesses, and the business community to help and come and present projects for public-private partnerships,” he said. “We’re looking at modular housing, rent-to-own, we’re looking at so many opportunities for our community members to have shelter over their head.”
Malliarou noted that two new staff members – a client-experience manager and a program manager – will be joining the team to better serve clients during the process of finding housing. She also said that another role, titled “housing programs and project management coordinator” will make the process of getting housing smoother. That role will be filled by an internal candidate.
“We are confident now that the new Housing Unit will be able to meet the needs of community members with more personalized service experience, and above all for transparency and accountability to the community,” she said.
The Housing Unit and MCK chiefs asked Kahnawake to “trust the process” going forward.
“Every single chief at the table is relentless in the pursuit of building houses. They’re pressuring the Housing Unit as much as they can to listen and meet demands,” Montour said. “There is not one chief that sits at this table that’s not listening to the community.”
All at the table acknowledged that the fallout of the housing scandal and the hundreds of thouands of unaccounted for money has been hard to overcome. Rice and Montour both noted that much of the housing department’s work after the scandal had been focused on the reconciliation of accounts affected by the situation.
“It’s well known that there were many issues with the reconciliation of accounts for our clients,” said Rice. He explained that an independent study was conducted by the independent consulting firm Osborne Group, involving a forensic review of over 282 mortgages and home renovation files. This will provide a roadmap to implement to reconcile accounts going forward.
“Now we have the data. We can move forward in implementing a strategy to reconcile accounts for each client that requires it,” Rice said. “The work is not done by any means, but the tools and the groundwork are in place for us moving forward.”
Sky-Deer expressed thanks to the community for bearing with the MCK while they dealt with the fallout of the housing scandal, which thoroughly impacted the housing department financially and harmed their reputation. She said she hopes the community will see that major changes have been made to ensure the department’s success.
“We felt that it was very important to do something like this in terms of transparency, and in terms of letting the community know where we’re at,” she said. “We have to move forward. We learn from our mistakes, we evolve, we grow.”