On Affordable Housing


“Nearly 130 properties managed by Capital Region Housing are under scrutiny after a broken furnace leaked and sent a family of six to hospital with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

‘This occurring is quite rare,’ said Greg Dewling, executive director of Capital Region Housing.

The family was allowed to return to their south Edmonton townhouse after treatment Friday.

‘It was an older furnace,’ Dewling said. “There was a malfunction in the furnace that caused the creation of some carbon monoxide.”

  • Subsidized homes to be inspected after CO leak sends family of 6 to hospital, By Zoe Todd, CBC News, Last Updated: Oct 22, 2016 7:58 AM MT


Since the end of World War Two, Alberta Social Housing has been provided by organizations which are directly or indirectly controlled by the federal or provincial governments. There are many examples of developments which were started or controlled by the Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation or various provincial agencies in Calgary and Edmonton.


However, we do have a problem: the commitment of those same governments to the area of social housing. Under Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, any direct federal role in the creation of housing was ended. This role has so dramatically changed that social housing became for all practical purpose an area of provincial responsibility. Consequently more than 40% of all social housing in Alberta is no provided, directly or indirectly, by the province of Alberta. This would include Capital Region Housing (CRHC) and the Calgary Housing Corporation (CHC).


Capital Region Housing Corporation describes themselves as the “largest provider of social and affordable housing in the Edmonton area”. Managing both townhouses and apartments which provide over 4,500 social housing rental units and over 400 affordable housing rental units, one can see that CRHC has a huge job before them.


In Calgary, the CHC – in managing and operating over 10,000 subsidized and affordable housing units – is no slouch either.


The problem with both CRHC and CHC though is obvious: like most government held social housing, both have been chronically underfunded for years.  If you don’t believe me, speak to Michael Bunker, Director of Asset Management. He only joined the CRHC in 2015 after working with Ontario’s Niagara Regional Housing. However, in CRHC’s 2015 annual report he noted that “the housing stock here had really been allowed to deteriorate and obviously wasn’t a government priority.”


It was so bad that a family of six had to be sent to hospital because of a malfunctioning furnace. What makes matters worse was the simple fact that CRHC had not gotten around to putting in a carbon monoxide monitor in the unit in question. However, this is only the beginning because as the CRHC noted that they also had to reduce staff in 2015 in order to balance their budgets. Or put differently, with less staff, how will CRHC maintain the already deteriorating properties they own and manage?


With this being said, CHC also has its own challenges. As noted in its 2015 annual report, there is all sorts of funding uncertainty.  “Agreements with the Federal Government for current social housing properties will begin to expire commencing in 2021 and will end by 2035.”  What makes things worse is simple: “Maintenance funding is not keeping pace with inflation”.


This should not be a surprise because much of the CHC’s housing stock is old. 50% of it was constructed prior to 1981 and 20% was built before 1971. Accordingly, it is not a surprise that the CHC Report concluded that “aging stock is a challenge because maintenance costs continue to rise and end-of-life looms on some facilities.” Furthermore, the report noted that “as stock ages, it is also necessary to respond to ongoing changes to building and safety codes which further impacts lifecycle maintenance costs.” Therefore, CRHC and CHC are in trouble.


This should not be a surprise. For years, municipalities and civil society organizations have been complaining about the lack of affordable housing. Big Cities mayors have noted that it is the hardest part of the budget to fund and there have been many attempts at short term solutions. For example, the city of Calgary has a programme called “Attain your Home”. It is an interesting programme which allows people who have an income but no capital to buy a home. For people in this situation might have an income or pension but don’t have enough money for a downpayment. The “attain your home” programme simply provides eligible people with a downpayment.


This can have a significant impact. By providing people who can obtain a mortgage with a down payment, it frees up an apartment. That increased supply, in large enough numbers, would reduce rent; thus making more spaces available for those with less income.


In Calgary’s case, the only problem with the programme is that the houses provided are at the edge of the city. So, while people can move from renters to home owners, those same people also now have to buy a car, pay for gas, insurance, registration and all of the constant financial pressures’ which come with owning a car. Such an affordability dilemma leaves many people at the mercy of a speeding ticket or accident instead of their landlord.


It is be my contention that a better system can be created. In talking to Norfolk Affordable Housing Society, I think we can find one possible answer. Norfolk uses an interesting mix revenue model to create housing solutions. They have five properties in one of Calgary’s most vibrant communities of Hillhurst and Sunnyside. Half of the residents pay market priced rents, while the other half pay a rental price which is “geared to income”. Coupled with the market based revenue from commercial spaces – at the base of each building – one can see that allowing not-for-profit actors into the affordable housing space can help solve a very difficult public policy problem.


Allowing different not-for-profit actors does allow for a variety of different foci. For example, the Edmonton’s FASD community has found support through the development and creation of a not-for-profit housing complex called Hope Terrace. Through Hope Terrace is unique because it is a “supportive housing apartment complex that offers 24-hour support for people born with FASD”. (Edmonton supportive housing complex for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder a Canadian first, By Mack Lamoureux, CBC News Last Updated: Sep 9, 2016 9:03 PM MT).


Each of these foci would also allow for a different model. For example, some models might focus on the needs of the autistic, sight impaired or hearing impaired communities. As an example, Tim Hortons franchisees have been hiring some persons with autism and Down Syndrome. According to EmployAbilities – an Alberta centred, community-based charitable non-profit organization –

one Tim Hortons franchisee (Mark Wafer) has found that in 2011, he had a zero “absenteeism rate among Wafer’s 33 employees with disabilities”. Furthermore, he has “never made a work-related injury insurance claim for an employee with a disability.” If this experience is typical, one could contemplate the creation of a housing complex which provides a bridge to employment opportunities and training. If successful, such a complex might not have to charge reduced or subsidized rates.


In this case, we would not have to worry about a provincial government who is constantly asking agencies to cut staff or “hold-the-line” budgets. In fact, we might have a situation where the Government of Alberta provides a safety net to organizations and not on-going directions.


So how do we get to this mythical place of having multiple affordable or alternative housing providers? By acknowledging where we are and understanding where we need to be. According to the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, The Government of Alberta is “both a funder and owner of non-market housing through the Alberta Social Housing Corporation and owns 41 per cent of non-market housing units”.


Furthermore, we should acknowledge that we are in a temporary trend. As noted by Reid Southwick of the National Post, in his article “Calgary housing vacancy rate spikes to height not seen in 12 years amid economic turmoil” (Website, July 21, 2016), Calgary has had net emigration going back to the 1980s. While, it is true that people left in large numbers from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, Alberta has generally had population multiplication. Consequently, the affordable housing stock should also be growing slowly. On average, it will be argued here that the goal of the Legislature of Alberta to grow the affordable housing stock by 1% every year. In my opinion, one percent is a good number since it mimics Canada’s immigration and population growth.


If this is the current situation, the policy goal should be to reduce the Alberta Social Housing Corporation’s (ASHC) portfolio by one percent over the next 10 years. Or put differently by 2026 or 2027, ASHC would have 30% of all of Alberta’s non-market housing units.


To allow for this to happen, a couple of things should occur. Firstly, publically owned social housing providers – including but not limited to the Government of Alberta, ASHC, CRHC and the Calgary Housing Corporation – should come together and figure out which housing complexes were built before 1980 and are in poor condition. Once an inventory is completed, the real work can be done.


For, Not-for-profit and civil society organizations who already provide affordable housing, like Hope Terrace and Norfolk Affordable Housing Society, could be asked to bid on new, more dense project which would replace this poorly maintained stock and then some. This second step is important because the new housing providers should aim to provide 10 to 20% more housing than they are replacing.


The provincial government would provide 30 to 50% of the funding, while the organizations would be required to develop a “sustainable model”. If we use Calgary as an example, we can see how this would work. On MacLeod Trail, there are a number of areas that could be developed or redeveloped. There are commercial and retail buildings. There are even a few patches of land without any development. Given the high vacancy rates in the city, one could easily see a situation where the Province could buy a patch of land and, alongside a civil society organization, erect a large residential apartment style building with two to five floors of retail or commercial space underneath. Once built, the civil society organization would manage it. In many ways, this is similar to Centre 4800 (Calgary Drop-In Centre’s Expansion).


Given the proximity to various transit corridors (i.e. C-Train, Bus and Road),  one could see a reduction in automobile related costs and the possibility that people in this complex might be able to build a foundation for their own success. Such a project would be a first step in developing an “Alberta Building Society” (ABS). An ABS could provide start-up funds – either equity or debt –, advice and assistance in the developing of new affordable, Not-for-Profit housing complexes. An ABS could advice co-ops how to expand and grow.


This is the type of innovative governance that is needed to replenish our affordable housing stock: Government Action and Policy Innovation. This is how Government should work. This is what Rutherford and Sifton did. They built the University of Alberta and many of our roads. They created Alberta Government Telephone – Telus’ predecessor. Rutherford and Sifton learned lessons from Mackenzie and Laurier. From these lessons, others learned that inclusion was direction in which we should go. As a Liberal, I know this. I know that treating the “Other” with respect will lead to better outcomes. For, by treating the Other with respect, the Other will do the same to me. In recognizing that we ensure that the Majority will never become a tyranny because citizens will defend the “Other”; we also recognize that conversation between majority and minority, between friend and brother, between sister, mother and father, is our only salvation. In that way, we become stronger and seek the best outcome for all. This is what I wish to see and why I am running to be the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party.

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