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New housing strategy not doing enough to help rural residents reach ‘Canadian dream,’ remote communities left out, say opposition MPs

By Emily Haws      

Liberal MP Bob Nault says change will happen as long as everything goes well with the provinces, but Conservative MPs James Bezan and Karen Vecchio and NDP MP Niki Ashton aren't so sure.

Liberal MP Bob Nault, pictured speaking with The Hill Times this week, says the National Housing Strategy will likely make a big dent in his rural riding's housing needs. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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With no rural-specific programming, opposition MPs representing rural ridings say they are concerned the Liberals’ new housing strategy is going to leave their constituents out in the cold.

The National Housing Strategy, as announced Nov. 22, is a $40-billion plan to build more social housing units, reduce chronic homelessness, and create more affordable housing for targeted populations.

However, Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Man.) said the strategy does not make homeownership more affordable—something key in rural and remote ridings where it’s often the only option. And Conservative MP Karen Vecchio (Elgin-Middlesex-London, Ont.), her party’s housing critic, said there is very little specifically targeting rural communities.

Nearly 6.6 million Canadians live in rural areas, according to the 2016 census, where rural is defined as areas “with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants and a population density below 400 people per square kilometre.”

Mr. Bezan said homeownership is a key issue in his riding, which has a population of about 88,000. The strategy should have had an aspect to make the “Canadian dream” a reality, he said, particularly for first-time homebuyers.

What was announced was a policy that’s more driven towards social housing in more densely populated areas, he said.

Conservative MP James Bezan says the National Housing Strategy should better address homeownership as it’s often the only option in rural communities. The Hill Times file photograph

“[It] just isn’t enough money and [it’s] all going to be eaten up by the major urban centres just like infrastructure money is, and rural communities continue to be left behind.”

In October, the government announced all potential mortgages will be subjected to a stress test—or simulated higher interest rates—which could reduce the amount a bank is willing to lend for a mortgage.

The move is thought to be a way to cool the housing markets in Vancouver and Toronto as potential buyers’ reduced mortgages will drive prices down. However, Mr. Bezan said this policy should not be applied nationally.

“It’s also hurting those … trying to sell their homes, because for many people that’s part of their retirement plans,” he said.

Audrey-Anne Coulombe, a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) spokesperson, said the housing strategy supports affordable housing ownership through government-backed mortgage loan insurance.

‘They already don’t have this money,’ says Tory critic

Included in the plan is the planned 2020 rollout of the Canada Housing Benefit, which will provide subsidies directly to those living in social housing, on social housing wait-lists, and those housed in the private market struggling to make ends meet. It’s estimated to provide an average of $2,500 per year to each recipient household.

According to CMHC, 1.7 million families across the country are in core housing need, meaning their housing needs major repairs, is too small, or costs more than 30 per cent of before-tax household income.

Ms. Vecchio said about 235,000 Canadians will experience homelessness annually. Social infrastructure and homelessness prevention programming are often found in big cities, she said, but in rural areas these programs are often run by volunteer groups or churches.

“It is very different when you’re living in rural and remote compared to the urban centres, and so I think there needs to be something that addresses that,” she said, adding she thinks the government plans to use the Canada Housing Benefit as its strategy for reducing housing issues in rural communities.

It’s concerning so much money is left up to provinces and territories, she said, as “when they talk about a variety of things, they already don’t have this money.”

Overall, the housing plan will cost about $40-billion in new and old spending, with the federal government planning to invest $20.5-billion over 12 years in provincial and territorial housing programs, and the provinces and territories expected to kick in $7.4-billion in new, cost-matched spending.

Administered by the CMHC, the strategy will be funded through both new and existing programs. It includes the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, which will invest $15.9-billion to repair existing rental housing and develop new affordable housing. It is expected to create up to 60,000 new homes and repair up to 240,000 existing community homes.

The fund will create or repair at least 7,000 shelter spaces for survivors of violence, and create at least 12,000 new units for seniors, and 2,400 units for those with developmental disabilities. Up to $200-million in surplus federal lands will be given to affordable housing providers at low or no cost.

There’s a lot of catch-up to do, says NDP MP Ashton

The NDP has been pushing for a national housing strategy for about 20 years, but the unveiled strategy will not be meeting needs, said NDP MP Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.).

“This announcement isn’t hopeful in dealing with these issues,” she said. “The funding certainly isn’t reflective and neither is the sense of urgency.”

MP Niki Ashton, pictured at the NDP leadership showcase in September, said she doesn’t think the National Housing Strategy has enough money to address Canada’s housing insecurity. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Her particular riding, with a population of approximately 84,000, has a lack of housing stock, she said, which isn’t going to be helped by the Canada Housing Benefit. The housing stock is often outdated, and needs major renovations.

“It’s … particularly challenging for isolated communities, and I represent 18 of them,” Ms. Ashton said. “Housing stock has not kept up with population numbers, where it’s much more expensive to build a home because of isolation and climate factors, and you end up with situations of extreme overcrowding.”

A 2003 research note by the CMHC states ownership housing is the primary form of tenure in rural towns, where it is often the only choice. As well, the rural housing stock is much older, according to the CMHC—29 per cent of rural stock consists of buildings built before 1941. Small communities often do not have much new rental construction, and selling homes can be tough in depressed economies because of both the age of the properties, a lack of movement into the community.

The government has said it will unveil a targeted strategy, however Ms. Ashton said it should have been announced at the same time.

“We know … it’s Indigenous communities that have the highest levels of housing insecurity in our country,” she said, adding it is unacceptable they have to wait longer. “The market model doesn’t work entirely in many of these [northern] communities and there certainly needs to be federal intervention … We have a lot of catch up to do.”

‘I think we’re going to make a huge dent in some of the concerns,’ says Liberal MP Nault

All opposition MPs interviewed by The Hill Times said they were concerned about the amount of funding the provinces and territories were expected to provide, but Liberal MP Bob Nault (Kenora, Ont.) said there were likely some significant discussions with the provinces before the strategy was announced.

Representing a large, mostly rural riding, Mr. Nault said larger or more prominent rural communities in an area have social housing projects, but the smaller communities do not. In his region, he said about 600 families are on a waitlist for social housing, which could be addressed if the region gets its share of the strategy money.

“From a per capita basis we probably have a larger homeless population than you would have in Toronto,” he said, adding the strategy will address this as it builds new units, as well as transitional housing for victims of family violence, which is rare in his riding.

He said the strategy is in its early days, so it remains to be seen whether the strategy will address his riding’s issues, however, Mr. Nault said he expects it to if the provinces kick in their funding.

It is good the federal government is getting more involved in social housing, he said, because rural and remote communities don’t have the tax base to be able to do so. He said it is generally twice as expensive to build a home in a rural or remote part of Canada, which could force out the private sector depending on the community either because of costs or because people cannot afford market rent prices.

“[The Canada Housing Benefit] will be a way of trying to improve upon that,” he said.

ehaws@hilltimes.com
The Hill Times

Funding breakdown for the National Housing Strategy

The roughly $40-billion of funding is comprised of all new and existing investments from 2018-19 to 2027-28, as follows:

  • $15.9-billion for a new federally-delivered National Housing Co-Investment Fund. This is comprised of about $4.7-billion in capital contributions to offset costs of developing affordable housing and $11.2-billion that will be made available for low-interest loans to finance the rest of the project.
  • $2.2-billion for homelessness programming.
  • $2.5-billion for a Federal-Provincial/Territorial Housing Partnership Fund. This includes $300-million for the three territories that is not cost-matched by the territories and $1.2-billion in matched funding from provinces and territories.
  • $4-billion for the new Canada Housing Benefit. This includes $2-billion in matched funding from the provinces and territories.
  • $9.1-billion for the Community Housing Initiatives. This includes $500-million for a CMHC delivered Federal Community Housing Initiative. And $8.6-billion for an initiative that will delivered by the provinces and territories, and the Canada Community Housing Initiative. Provinces and territories will invest $4.3-billion of the total $8.6-billion.
  • $9.8-billion of federal funding that has already been committed to be spent of housing and homelessness programs from 2018-19 to 2027-28.

—Source: The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

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