Cities to parties: Fill housing gaps for seniors, Indigenous people

OTTAWA — Canada’s cities want all the federal parties to promise to pour billions more into the national government’s decade-long housing strategy to make sure that seniors, urban Indigenous people and low-income renters aren’t left behind by the tens of billions in already pledged spending.

The call, led by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, put a price tag on many of the federal actions advocates say are needed to make housing more affordable across the country — an issue the parties have spent months reviewing amid polling suggesting it remains top-of-mind for urban voters.

But the cost could be steep: An estimated total of about $827 million a year in new spending, for the remaining eight years of the strategy, that would include helping seniors pay for refits so they can stay in their homes longer, building more housing for urban Indigenous people, and paying for units for homeless people with mental illnesses.

Cities are also asking parties to consider a combination of subsidies and tax credits for owners of aging rental buildings to pay for upgrades and to maintain the apartments as low-cost units.

The Liberals unveiled their 10-year, $40-billion national housing strategy in late 2017 in partnership with provinces and territories. They’ve since boasted the total cost is over $55 billion, counting new spending measures in this year’s budget like funding to help offset mortgage costs for first-time homebuyers — a program that has a campaign-tinged start date of Sept. 2, and which the Liberals promoted Wednesday.

But the strategy has faced criticism from the parliamentary budget officer, who in June reported that the plan doesn’t boost funding all that much and also questioned whether its goals are achievable. Housing providers have privately lamented how complicated some of the individual programs are.

FCM president Bill Karsten, a Halifax councillor, said the strategy “certainly solves part of the policy needs for housing in Canada moving forward, but there are some gaps.”

The first gap is for the hardest-to-house homeless, who usually struggle with mental illness, addiction, or both. FCM suggests an extra $365-million annual fund to fully cover the cost of 2,300 new units each year to cut the number of “chronic homeless” in half.

Keeping low-cost rentals on the market carries the next-largest price tag, at $250 million a year. The federation says that would keep about 40,000 units over eight years from falling prey to “renoviction,” where landlords renovate older units as a way to get rid of tenants they otherwise wouldn’t be able to evict and then rent out the refurbished units for more money.

Most of the country’s rental housing was built in the 1970s and 1980s and those units are generally cheaper than newer apartments or condos. The national housing strategy offers money to build new private rental units and renovate ones owned largely by non-profits. Older, less expensive units owned by private landlords are left out, advocates say.

The $250 million would be a combination of grants and tax breaks and come with strings attached, the FCM says, specifically so rents don’t increase beyond what’s allowed, or the rate of inflation, for at least 20 years.

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