It’s been almost three weeks since the City passed its 3-year operating budget and now that the dust has settled, some people have asked: if affordable housing is such a priority for City Council, why did we leave affordable housing projects unfunded?
While the main thrust of these budget deliberations was restraint on spending, a related principle was discipline around our jurisdiction. From my perspective, there is no greater example of where the City’s mandated responsibility has been tested than in the funding of affordable housing.
To be clear, City Council remains strongly committed to supporting affordable housing projects in Edmonton. Without initiatives like the Housing First Program, we wouldn’t have been able to house over 5,000 homeless people since 2009. This should have ended homelessness in our city but for the fact that thousands more have become homeless over the same period – and as our economy continues to slow, we expect this problem to get worse instead of better.
However, ensuring that a high concentration of the most vulnerable Albertans have proper shelter should not and cannot be the sole responsibility of the Edmonton property tax payer.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t a priority to address – both for Council and for me. In fact, we are allocating $6 million/year for our Cornerstones program to build more secondary suites and continue the HOPE program, dedicating surplus school sites for affordable housing, and ensuring Blatchford includes an appropriate amount of affordable housing. But we need Provincial and Federal leadership and funding to match our will on the ground. We all recognize the incredible return on investment that affordable housing provides, from reduced crime rates to lower healthcare costs. We all benefit as citizens, but the public fiscal return on housing investments accrue mainly to the province and the feds, and not to municipal bottom lines with the exception of impacts to policing.
All around us are opportunities for what a new affordable housing model could look like. In Londonderry, we recently had to shut down a subsidized housing project because – like so many of these projects built in the 1970s – there was insufficient money set aside for rejuvenating the buildings themselves. As we think about the future of this site, and many others like it, there is an opportunity to create a new model for affordable housing that doesn’t require as much – if any – ongoing operating subsidies. But it will require some creativity, some density, and significant upfront investment and favorable financing from Ottawa, the province or both.
One of the more innovative ideas that has emerged over the last few months from the End Poverty Edmonton project is the creation of a ‘Community Development Corporation’ (CDC) that could be an enabler of more creative mixed-use and mixed-income development in our city. A CDC could help broker the kinds of affordable housing deals that mix market and non-market housing together – essentially having one help pay for the other, in perpetuity. This could be described as a ‘social enterprise’ approach, and has had strong support from the Edmonton Community Foundation.
If such a CDC, and for that matter our existing public housing authorities (like homeEd, Capital Region Housing Corporation, and Greater Edmonton Foundation) had the flexibility to access favorable lending through the Province or Ottawa (via Alberta Capital Finance Authority, or the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp for example), and applying the City’s commitment of land value as equity, these projects could get moving much more quickly. This is one of the main points of discussion in our City Charter engagement, and it represents a tangible example of how the province could partner with Edmonton to more effectively address a critical need in our city. With the federal government now appearing committed to funding affordable housing after nearly a decade of withdrawal from the sector, our timing may never be better.
So when City Council decided, with some reservation, not to use property tax towards some proposed affordable housing projects during the budget, it wasn’t because we no longer believed in housing Edmontonians in need. We did it because there has to be a better way, one that is fairer to city taxpayers, but one that will require willing government partners to succeed.