Frances Bula, The Globe and Mail, March 31 (interview with BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)
The federal government has announced B.C. will get a total of $205-million from Canada’s new rapid housing initiatives and some of the money has already been used to buy three buildings in downtown Vancouver that will be converted to subsidized housing.
Wednesday’s announcement is among a torrent of federal events in recent weeks touting new housing measures by the federal Liberals.
In Vancouver, there has been an unprecedented level of acquisitions by the city and the province with the help of federal money. At least some of the money is meant to help Vancouver clear a large encampment of homeless people in Strathcona Park, near Chinatown, that has become a highly visible flashpoint in the city.
It’s the kind of movement on housing that those who work in the sector say hasn’t been seen in decades. But, they note, it is not going to instantly make up for 25 years of federal-government absence from the scene.
“In its heyday in the 1970s, the federal government was building 25,000 units of social housing a year. We’re not going to dig ourselves out of that hole quickly,” said Jill Atkey, chief executive officer of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.
City Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung concurred that, while it’s a big improvement to see the kind of housing investment happening now, “there’s still a long way to go.”
The Liberal-led federal government of the early 1990s, with Paul Martin as finance minister, ended direct support for social housing as of 1994. Since then, homelessness and rental-housing scarcity have accelerated in many major Canadian cities.
The Justin Trudeau-led Liberal Party has made a lot of promises about housing since its first campaign in 2015. But there’s been frustration about the slow rollout of the money and the fact that 80 per cent of what has been promised through the party’s national housing strategy is in the form of cheap financing for rentals that are at market or barely-below-market rates.
However, the pandemic pushed the Liberals into creating a new $1-billion program called the Rapid Housing Initiative.
That and other pieces of the strategy have surged into prominence recently as federal ministers and MPs have done a blitz of announcements in February and March.
In B.C. alone, there have been six announcements about federal housing money, ranging from $25-million for a Whistler project to promises of $517-million for B.C. over all to provide supplements for low-income renters in the next decade.
Nationally, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. lists 22 different announcements about housing funding just in March, five of them on Wednesday alone. Besides the general announcement about housing initiative money for B.C., including the three Vancouver buildings, money was also announced for Victoria, Moncton, Brandon, Man., and Temiskaming, Ont.
There were 10 other announcements in February, but only four in January.
The last time there were so many housing announcements in such a short time was just prior to the federal election of October, 2019.
The money announced for B.C. Wednesday, which has also been referenced in other announcements, spelled out that B.C. will be able to acquire 700 new apartments with the $205.6-million from two different streams of the Rapid Housing Initiative.
One stream, which directly provides the cities of Vancouver and Surrey and the Victoria region with $80.9-million, is paying for 281 apartments in those cities, as part of a focus on the 15 municipalities in Canada with the most significant homelessness problems. Another $124.7-million will go to non-profits in communities throughout the province for another 419 units.
Since the federal program requires that all the housing be functional and occupied by the end of the year, that is driving cities to acquire either hotels and other buildings that can be converted to residential or to plan for quickly built modular housing.
Vancouver’s purchases include a hostel on Granville Street that has been leased since last July to provide housing for homeless people, the Ramada Inn on West Pender, and a currently empty building near Main and Hastings streets.