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British Columbia B.C. welcomes new funds for social housing as critics urge Ottawa to act quickly

Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, talks with reporters in St. John's, N.L. on Sept. 13, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government's new national housing strategy means an immediate reprieve for dozens of co-op housing buildings and a boost for projects already under way in a province that is in the midst of a crisis in affordable housing.

But politicians and housing advocates say the details of Wednesday's announcement are too vague to declare who will benefit the most from the policy and when.

Even federal Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said at a news conference in Vancouver that it was too soon to say exactly how much money British Columbia or any other province will get out of the plan.

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"If I were to say something, it would almost certainly be wrong," he told journalists in a question-and-answer session. "Many of these details are not yet finalized."

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson welcomed Canada's development of a national housing strategy.

"It's been an embarrassment to not have a national housing strategy as a country," he said.

But he and others also expressed uncertainty about specifics, with Mr. Robertson saying pointedly that he expects Vancouver to get a per-capita share of the federal funding. He called it a "fair share."

B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson called the announcement a "good first step, a sign of renewed commitment from the federal government." She declined to take questions from reporters.

The federal housing news on Wednesday produced a lot of confusion about how much money is new, how much money individual provinces will get and what budget year federal funding might arrive in.

That echoes the concern many expressed when the federal Liberal government announced big spending on housing over 11 years – $11.2-billion – in last year's budget, but closer inspection showed that very few dollars were allocated for the early years.

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Many hope that money from a new $15.9-billion "co-investment fund" that will require agreements between provinces and Ottawa on cost-sharing, could arrive as early as the 2018-19 fiscal year.

"It appears that the co-investment fund to be launched in 2018 is the game-changer," said Thom Armstrong, executive director of the B.C. Co-operative Housing Federation.

He said a number of projects are under way, kicked off with money that the BC Liberal government put into affordable housing, that could benefit from additional federal support.

As well, one measure that promises immediate help is the federal commitment to continuing subsidies for co-op housing. About 50 local co-op projects had already lost that subsidy and many more were threatened with that prospect in the next five years.

"That was a big relief," Mr. Armstrong said.

B.C. is in a good position to sign an early agreement for the co-investment fund.

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The province maintained significant spending on social housing in the decades after the federal government bowed out of housing support in the early 1990s, unlike most other provinces except Quebec.

Now, an NDP government has been promising even more money.

As well, Vancouver is already on board to move ahead aggressively on housing projects, promising to provide 20 sites for subsidized housing and expedited processing time.

Housing advocates and non-profit housing managers said they expect a lot of negotiation before any federal money comes into local projects.

"Even after today, there's going to be a lot more work to do," said Kishone Roy, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association.

The operator of a housing organization that caters mainly to women was encouraged by the federal emphasis on coming up with programs and housing suitable for them.

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"I'm grateful that they've offered a gender lens and that 25 per cent of the housing money is dedicated to women and girls," said Janice Abbott, the executive director of the Atira Women's Resource Society.

But, like many, she was uncertain about what might be happening in the short term.

"I don't understand yet when that money is going to be available."

Mr. Horgan said he has repeatedly made the point with the Prime Minister that a national housing strategy – one that gets under way quickly – is imperative. If implementation of the Liberal plan is put off until 2020, "I'll be disappointed."

"My expectation is we will be starting right away and we'll be building our budget in February based on resources coming from Ottawa."

He said there is much work to do, noting that action is needed not only for those at low income, but for those at most income levels.

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"But in order to address affordability, we need to bring on more housing and it needs to be not just one-bedroom apartments in the sky," he said. "We need to build houses and homes for families and that means two- and three-bedroom units, that means building density around transportation corridors."

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