Proponents worry about future of subsidized housing

Federal funds will dry up this year unless action is taken

Time is running out for agencies across the country that provide affordable housing. As much as $1.7 billion worth of federal funding agreements provided to municipalities and subsidized housing agencies will expire this year. Through an array of programs from the ministries of Human Resources and Skills Development Housing and Urban Affairs and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) the federal government contributes to approximately 600000 subsidized housing units 37250 of which are in Alberta.

With the expiry dates for federal funding programs approaching and little word from the feds as to whether agreements will be renewed organizations such as the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) have been lobbying the federal government and municipal governments to act.

CHRA executive director Jody Ciufo met with representatives from six federal government departments to press the issue in late 2013.

“Many of you here today know you will face the expiry of operating agreements tied to social housing units. Some of you already have” she told attendees at B.C.’s provincial housing conference in November. “There are misconceptions on the Hill about the implications of funding losses…. Market rental housing is too limited and too expensive for many. Through tax and other incentives we ask that the federal government encourage the development of more rental housing encouraging quality sustainability choice and moderating rents.”

The FCM is also running a campaign to renew the funding structure. It says “there is a lot at stake” citing Canada’s housing affordability statistics as evidence that there is no slack in Canadian housing for beneficiaries of government funding should it disappear. For example the FCM says there are currently 5300 families and individuals on Edmonton and Calgary’s affordable housing waiting list that mortgage debt accounts for 65 per cent of Canadian household debt and a quarter of Canadians spend more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter.

The FCM’s campaign encourages municipalities to pass motions asking the federal government to renew funding immediately. Nearly 100 councils have done so including Calgary’s on January 14 thanks to a motion made by Coun. Brian Pincott.

Pincott says housing is a serious issue “across the spectrum” all over Canada. He also says it’s at a crisis level in Calgary due to the effect of the flood on an already very tight market.

“Here in Calgary in one day we went from a challenge to a crisis” he says.

“What exacerbates our problem in Calgary is that we are so rich” Pincott adds. “Things like the flood increase the pressure on people… because it brought a bunch of people into the market say the rental market who are normally not there and they are squeezing people out because they can afford to pay whatever. To put it bluntly our housing continuum or housing spectrum in Calgary is broken. It is broken and it is broken at all levels.

“We have a problem with affordable housing that is subsidized housing…. We have a problem with market rental in that we haven’t built any and we’re getting less and less market rental on the market… and rent is going up. We have a problem with affordable home ownership in that there isn’t all that much” he says.

Calgary’s “strong” housing market only makes the situation worse. A January 15 release from the Calgary Real Estate Board forecasts housing prices and the numbers of sales will increase in 2014.

“The benchmark price on single-family homes in Calgary is expected to reach $467100 while the benchmark price on apartment condominiums and apartment townhomes will reach $281798 and $208690 respectively.

“So every aspect of our housing continuum is broken to the point where there are gaps between each segment that are too large for somebody to make the step out of” Pincott says.

Derek Cook the executive director of the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative agrees the costs are simply too high for many to handle without the kind of help the federal programs offer.

“Our approach to poverty reduction is that we need to build up resilience…. If a significant amount of your income is going to housing costs you don’t have the opportunity to build up the assets that you need that will provide you relief in the event of a crisis. In this case what happened in June [is] we saw a crisis with the flood that revealed a lot of the vulnerability that was there…. Providing affordable housing enables people to build that resilience that will help them in that time of crisis” says Cook.

“We’ve muddled along with this challenge for years and we’ve all known about it and picked away at it as best we can” says Pincott. “It’s going to require the private sector and the not-for-profit sector working together and saying ‘okay how the hell do we get it so that our housing market our housing continuum functions the way that it should?’”