Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, September 4 (with quotes from BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)
Since the federal Liberals announced their National Housing Co-Investment Fund in 2017 with great fanfare, only a mere trickle of its money has made its way to B.C., with most of the dollars staying in Ontario.
Newly obtained data validates a common refrain from officials in B.C.’s non-profit housing sector, and provincial and municipal politicians: Despite the lofty rhetoric that “the Government of Canada is back in housing,” very little money for construction of new non-profit homes is coming to B.C., despite the province having, by many measures, the country’s most acute housing and homelessness crisis.
Of the first $1.47 billion in finalized funding from the Fund, as of January, only $7.3 million — about 0.5 per cent — was for projects in B.C. Ontario got 94 per cent of the funding, or $1.39 billion, most of which went to Toronto.
The numbers come from records obtained this year by federal NDP housing critic Jenny Kwan, using a parliamentary process that allows written questions. The records have not yet been made public, but Kwan provided them to Postmedia for analysis.
Kwan, the Vancouver East MP, said she had been trying for a while, through different avenues, to get a clearer picture of how much money was flowing and where from the Fund, which was unveiled in 2017 as part of the Liberals’ National Housing Strategy The Fund helps pay for construction of new affordable homes and repairs to existing ones.
In the absence of detailed data, Kwan had been hearing “conflicting” information: The federal Liberals trumpeted the fund as a game-changer for Canadian housing, but non-profit housing providers in B.C. said even after navigating the onerous application process for the Fund, they simply weren’t getting any money.
There seemed, Kwan said, to be “a complete disconnect in what the Liberals keep on bragging about, versus what’s happening on the ground.”
Once Kwan finally got the data, “It took my breath away.”
“These are factual numbers, the government can’t be evasive anymore with their pretty words,” she said.
The new data also shows funding flowing much slower than expected. From 2018 to January 2020, only 23 projects in Canada had finalized funding agreements out of 432 submissions, meaning less than five per cent of applicants successfully got finalized agreements. The average processing time was 400 days, well over the 194 to 289 days described on the Fund’s website.
Manitoba and Prince Edward Island each secured finalized Fund agreements worth more than three times what B.C. got, as of January. Alberta had submitted 43 applications and Quebec had submitted 70 applications, but both had zero finalized agreements by January. Just over half of all finalized agreements were in Ontario.
The federal minister responsible for the program, Ahmed Hussen, was not made available for an interview.
In response to written questions, spokeswoman Jessica Eritou sent an emailed statement that did not answer Postmedia’s questions about the geographic disparity, but said: “The construction of affordable housing takes time. … The completion of a multi-unit affordable housing project, whether new construction or renovation, can take up to three years after funding is advanced.”
The federal government has agreements with provinces under the National Housing Strategy, Eritou said, but “as each province or territory independently negotiated and signed these historic housing agreements based on their jurisdictional needs, it would be inappropriate to compare the agreements and progress between the provinces and territories.”
Eritou said that since 2017, almost $2.5 billion has been “financially committed to housing in British Columbia under the National Housing Strategy, to create or repair 13,427 units,” through various programs, including the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, the Innovation Fund, and the Rental Construction Financing Initiative.
It was not immediately clear, though, how much of that $2.5 billion was in the form of loans and how much was grants.
But the data obtained by Kwan shows that as of January 2020, only two projects in B.C. had finalized agreements through the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, with a total of 66 units over two sites, and a combined $7.3 million in federal funding. That compares with 10 finalized agreements in Ontario by that time, totalling 344 new units and more than $51 million in funding.
There are also conditional agreements under the Fund, which Kwan’s data does not cover, a representative from her office explained. These agreements are offered as loans and can be converted to a finalized agreement later on, and the loans might be forgiven if certain criteria are met. An analysis provided by Kwan’s office showed that as of January 2020 there were conditional agreements in place to fund repair of construction of another 340 homes in B.C., although it wasn’t clear how many would be new builds and how many were repairs.
Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, called the numbers “shocking but not surprising.”
“This is very, very consistent with what we’ve been hearing from non-profits who have gone through the application process,” Atkey said. “I just don’t know how you come to another conclusion other than the feds are failing to understand the severity of the crisis here in B.C.”
Atkey has raised these concerns before. In July of 2019, she co-wrote a commentary piece in The Province, that said despite the feds’ repeated assurances about their commitment to housing, “Ottawa’s strategy has so far failed to launch in B.C.”
The parliamentary budget officer has also flagged the disconnect between the federal Liberals’ words and the spending.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart was an NDP MP in 2017 when the Liberal government announced its National Housing Strategy, and he remembers being optimistic about it at the time.
But in the almost two years since Stewart has been mayor, he’s grown increasingly frustrated with a lack of money landing in Vancouver. After these new figures confirmed that, Stewart expressed anger and questioned how the feds can even call it a “National Housing Strategy.”
“Now it turns out to be a dead duck. … Canada isn’t back when it comes to housing,” Stewart said. “This shows this program’s a total failure for us in British Columbia. It’s great for people in Ontario, but it is certainly a failure for us, and it really makes me feel like we’re on our own here.”
Stewart said the federal government deserves credit for the low-cost construction loans, a different part of the National Housing Strategy which has been a welcome success, he said. “But in terms of the grants, it’s been a disaster.”
Earlier this week, Stewart with B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson to announce 450 units of supportive housing for homeless people, funded by the province on city-owned land.
“If you noticed, at the press conference, there was an empty chair at the table,” Stewart said. “There were no feds there.”
The vast majority of the total dollars in finalized National Housing Co-Investment Fund agreements up to January went to $1.3 billion in repairs for Toronto Community Housing. But even removing that massive chunk of funding, Ontario still had received more than seven times the funding B.C. has got. Ontario’s population is about three times B.C.’s.
Money for public housing in Toronto is, by most accounts, sorely needed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentioned the deteriorating state of those buildings when he announced the funding last year for what he called“much needed renovations.”
But there are also serious housing needs outside of Toronto, with some of the most dire west of the Rockies.
Vancouver is thousands of kilometres from Ottawa’s corridors of power, but sometimes that distance feels even greater.
“I feel that because we’re out West, we get neglected,” Kwan said. “For us in British Columbia, we are not the centre of the universe, in the hearts and minds of the federal Liberal government.”
“This data verifies what we already know. But we can now back it up with data,” Kwan said. “And the numbers don’t lie.”