Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Liberals eye more cash for rapid-housing program as demand outstrips available funds

OTTAWA — The federal government is looking for more money to give to housing providers to quickly build, or buy existing structures for affordable housing units, Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen says.

Hussen didn’t say how much he wants, but the request comes after the government was overwhelmed with demand for its $1-billion rapid-housing initiative.

The Liberals estimated the money could create up to 3,000 units by this spring by helping cities and housing providers buy and quickly convert rental buildings, motels and hotels into affordable housing, or purchase easy-to-build units.

Hussen said dollars have been stretched in the program and the government is now on track to create 4,700 units, with about two-fifths of them for Indigenous people.

But there are still hundreds of applications that the government couldn’t, but wants to, fund, he said.

Overall, the government is funding 179 projects and a further 52 more from major cities out of 679 applications that had a total funding request of over $4 billion.

“This was a one-time program,” Hussen said during a virtual event Friday.

“But given the demand and the quality of the applications that we received, we’re currently seeking additional funding to support even more deserving projects.”

Although Hussen didn’t detail where he’s looking for money, the Liberals have been telling stakeholders to expect dollars in the upcoming federal budget as the government has for weeks quietly consulted on the design of a rebooted rapid-housing program.

That would put the funding Hussen hinted at on a timeline for the summer, but only if the government gets parliamentary approval for its spending plan.

The talks follow updated marching orders to Hussen from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to expand the rapid-housing initiative launched in the fall.

The Liberals split the $1 billion for the rapid-housing program into one dedicated stream for over a dozen big cities, and the rest for projects that have to be completed within 12 months of federal officials giving the green light for funding.

Adam Vaughan, Hussen’s parliamentary secretary, said cities were able to move the money faster as many had purchases or plans ready to go when the funding flowed.

He said money has moved more slowly in the application-based stream, but bought more units because per-unit costs were lower outside of hot real estate markets in places like Toronto and Vancouver.

“When you can design a program that has part of it moving quickly and part of it moving deeply, what you end up with, I think, are the results that we see in front of us,” Vaughan said.

Cities would like to keep direct allocations to major centres, while stakeholders have suggested a program solely based on project applications. Vaughan said an early read of the data from the program shows a good argument to sustain the twin funding streams.

“What we do have to look at is … where this money landed, where it has had some trouble landing, where there was strong provincial partnership, which had strong municipal partnership, but also where the non-profit sector has or hasn’t been served, and to play with those numbers to get the optimal results,” Vaughan said.

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