Affordable housing project has nearly three times as many waitlisted applicants as apartments

A former Traveller’s Inn at 120 Gorge Road East is being renovated into supportive housing for a multi-generational aboriginal community. The project is a partnership between the Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC) and the City of Victoria, which purchased the property in 2010 for $3.362 million with the assistance of two funding partners.

Called the Siem Lelum House — “Siem Lelum” being Salish for “Respected House” — the property will hold about 45 units. These units will be rented to aboriginal single adults between 19 and 25 years old who are working or in school and to young aboriginal families or aboriginal grandparents raising grandchildren.

The VNFC is a non-profit organization that supports urban aboriginal individuals and families. Executive director Bruce Parisian says their goal is to transition those who come off the reserve to a better life; often these individuals encounter racism and difficulties finding housing and jobs.

“120 Gorge is a vision for continuing support for many of our community members,” says Parisian.

The VNFC is managing the renovations in co-operation with the City and is in negotiations to purchase Siem Lelum from the City for an estimated $1.3 million.

The Siem Lelum press release states aboriginal residents make up 2.8 per cent of the population in the Capital Regional District (CRD). This is down from 2001 CRD figures that show this population was 4.31 per cent. In 2007, the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness found that aboriginal people make up 25 per cent of the homeless population. One-third of homeless youth are aboriginal; over half of the children growing out of the foster care system are also aboriginal.

“What happens with those youth [growing out of the foster system] is they often end up back on the streets,” says Parisian.

“On some of these reserves here, many youth think their lot in life is to be like their parents, on social assistance. How do you break that cycle? . . . We’re trying to create an opportunity for them to think about their future, and this means looking at employment and education to change what’s actually happening in their life,” he adds.

The vision for Siem Lelum includes the idea of a village where a healthy lifestyle can be modeled, says Parisian. It’s a place to learn life-long skills and to prepare for a self-sufficient future elsewhere. Support services, such as parenting programs and a class on how to be a good tenant, will be available at 120 Gorge Road East and elsewhere through the VNFC.

“That’s a part of what we’re trying to create — these opportunities for just the beginning stages of that growth,” he says.

In an email to the Martlet, UVic nursing professor Bernie Pauly said Siem Lelum is a much-needed addition to Victoria’s affordable housing.

“In the [past] two years, we have had very modest increases in Victoria’s affordable housing stock. The increases have not been enough to meet the need for affordable housing in our community,” wrote Pauly, who does housing research. “This project is especially important as it will increase housing that is based on the needs of aboriginal peoples.”

The project is in its first phase, which includes work on the two-storey building on the east side of the property that will hold 26 apartments and a laundry room. Phase one costs $1.114 million and is funded by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the City of Victoria and the CRD Housing Trust Fund.

Phase two is slated to begin next year on the three-storey building on the property’s west side, which will hold 19 apartments and a communal room. Parisian says future plans include a children’s playground and possibly a community garden.

Tenants will pay $425 every month for studio units and $620 for one-bedrooms or small family units. A two-year occupancy will be the standard, though Parisian says that tenants may be reassessed and allowed to stay longer. There are currently around 70 applicants on the waitlist for the 26 suites being developed.

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