Affordable housing 101: “Canada is back” in the housing game


Beaver Barracks, on Argyle. Photo: Double Space / The BUZZ

by Ray Sullivan

With the recent release of the federal budget and the province’s update to its Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy, Centretowners may be wondering whether this will mean we’ll see more affordable housing in our neighbourhoods. Here’s an overview of where we are now, and what is on the horizon.

Where we’re at: Prior to the mid-1980s, the federal government played a leading role in supporting affordable housing across Canada with funds for construction, operation and rent subsidies. In 1987, the federal government stepped out of this role when it transferred responsibility for housing to the provinces.

In Ontario, the provincial government cancelled affordable housing development programs in 1995, then transferred the whole responsibility down to the municipal level in 2001.

Since then, Ontario has seen very little new affordable housing. There is a serious shortage in affordable rentals in our city, seen in rents that consistently rise faster than incomes, the long waiting list for subsidized housing, the numbers of homeless using our shelters, and the increase in people relying on food banks.

Since 2006, the federal-provincial Investing in Affordable Housing program (IAH) has resulted in the construction of some new units locally, like the 254 new homes at Beaver Barracks opened by CCOC in 2010 and 2012. This funding program provides modest affordability, where some tenants qualify for a “below market rent” of 70 percent of the average market rent.

What the federal budget offers:

It doubles the IAH initiative for new development. This is great news, but the federal government requires provincial matching, and there isn’t anything in the recent provincial budget to indicate that they can match funding.

It adds $100 million a year for new seniors housing through IAH, with no requirement for provincial matching.

It gives $89.9 million over two years for shelters and transitional housing for victims of abuse (renovations and new construction), delivered through IAH with no requirement for provincial matching. The target is 3,000 shelter spaces over two years.

It commits $500 million for social housing repairs in 2016-17. This looks like a short-term boost since it tapers off very quickly, in 2017-2018, to $74 million. But it’s a great investment.

It provides $30 million over two years for extended rent supplements for federal housing providers that aren’t viable after their old operating agreements expire. This is just a temporary bridge solution until the federal government can consult with provinces on longer term viability solutions.

It creates a new investment of $208.3 million over five years for a new “Affordable Rental Housing Innovation Fund,” administered by CMHC. It looks like this will be a think tank to test new ideas that get the private sector building new rental housing at more affordable rates. The target is 4,000 new units over five years.

It sets up an Affordable Rental Housing Financing Initiative through CMHC, for what may be direct lending to municipalities and developers. This will be $500 million in loans per year for five years, with a target of 10,000 new units over five years.
Finally, it adds an additional $112 million over two years for the existing Homelessness Partnering Strategy.

The bottom line: Canada is back. Where the feds have been dipping their feet back into the housing water over the past decade, they are now waist deep and might just dive right in. But what’s happening at the provincial level?

The Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy update, released on March 14, lays out the Province’s plan to increase the supply of affordable housing and meet the government’s commitment to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.

The strategy includes plans to create a framework for a portable housing benefit. This would unlink the subsidy from the unit, allowing tenants to choose where they live.

It also creates a $17 million pilot project to provide portable housing benefits to people fleeing domestic violence. Right now, victims of abuse have priority access to social housing, but since the supply is so limited families can wait up to six months.

It creates new legislation that would enable municipalities to implement inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to set aside a certain number of units as affordable housing. It would be up to each municipality to enact this policy.

The strategy also develops a Supportive Housing Policy Framework that will provide $100 million over three years to improve access to housing allowances and support services for up to 4,000 households, and create 1,500 new supportive housing units.

It commits an additional $45 million over three years to the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative, and develops an indigenous housing strategy in partnership with indigenous communities.

Ray Sullivan is the executive director of Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, a nonprofit housing corporation.