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Sylvia Olsen’s training program prepares Indigenous people to manage on-reserve housing.

When Sylvia Olsen was hired as the housing manager for the Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island in 1998, she faced what she says is a “typical scenario” on First Nations reserves in the late ‘90s: “A housing portfolio that was in chaos.”

At that time the majority of First Nations weren’t allowed to own homes on reserves, so unless someone had off-reserve home ownership experience, few people were familiar with how mortgages worked.

Not that First Nations bands had your typical single-family-home mortgages: 30 to 40 social housing units could be covered by one “monstrous” mortgage, Olsen said. “So when the housing program gets in chaos, the First Nation is in financial trouble, big time.”

The role of a First Nations housing manager is complex, and can be quite broad depending on the size of the community and band capacity. Duties can include collecting rent, liaising with tenants, organizing maintenance for social housing units, liaising with government agencies, and engaging in community planning. In smaller communities, housing manager can be just one of many hats a band employee wears.

The state of housing on some First Nations reserves is notoriously bad. As of 2013, the Assembly of First Nations said 40 per cent of on-reserve housing needed major repairs while nearly one-quarter of the housing was overcrowded. There’s an estimated housing shortfall of anywhere from 35,000 to 85,000 new housing units nation-wide.

Olsen knows that some outsiders blame First Nations for housing “mismanagement.”

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