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Hundreds attend an affordable housing rally in Vancouver on May 24, 2015.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Almost two decades after Ottawa downloaded much of the responsibility for social housing onto the provinces, candidates campaigning in one of the country's poorest neighbourhoods say the federal government needs to be more involved in housing the country's most vulnerable residents.

The lack of federal, and even provincial funding, for social housing has long been a source of contention in Vancouver, particularly in the impoverished Downtown Eastside, where municipal and provincial politicians showed off a new $21-million housing project for at-risk aboriginal youth and low-income people Wednesday. City councillor Andrea Reimer said the city has been pushing since 2009 to get both the provincial and federal governments "engaged in a discussion about affordability" and now other mayors across the country are taking up the same call. "When we started, we felt a bit lonely, among cities in Canada, asking for that. Now it's an issue in every city," she said. "All cities are dealing with it, not just the big cities. You're hearing it in the suburbs and in small towns."

Ms. Reimer asserts that unaffordable housing touches many people, not just the third of Canadian households that rent.

It's unclear how much the issue will factor into the Oct. 19 federal election campaign, in which party leaders are battling for the support of – and tailoring their platforms to – the middle class. But local candidates for the riding that includes parts of the Downtown Eastside say Ottawa needs to be more involved. Even Tyler Johnson, a prospective Conservative candidate who is the party's only nominee but hasn't yet been acclaimed, says the federal government needs to develop an official housing strategy.

One in five Canadian renters pay more than 50 per cent of their incomes on housing and just 11 per cent of all housing built in the past 20 years has been for rental units, according to a study released earlier this year by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

The federal government spends about $1.7-billion each year on housing, but that funding as a share of Canada's GDP has plunged 40 per cent since 1989, according to the FCM report. Much of the country's existing social-housing stock was created through partnerships between all levels of government, but cities and provinces are having more trouble maintaining those units as Ottawa stopped renewing such agreements, the report noted.

In the meantime, critics argue more people are getting pushed out onto the street and rent for young, old and low-income Canadians is becoming more unaffordable.

Mr. Johnson worked in the Downtown Eastside for years managing social-housing units and said more federal dollars should be put toward partnerships with the province and the city to provide "safe harbour" for the area's many residents stuck in the neighbourhood "for no other reason than economic ones."

NDP candidate Jenny Kwan, a former MLA, said an NDP government will reinstitute a national housing program, which she said could have provided an additional 600,000 affordable units of housing across the country by now if it wasn't axed by the federal Liberal government in 1997.

"We need a comprehensive strategy, not a piecemeal strategy," she said. "Our program is going to be fully costed when the platform is going to be released."

Edward Wong, Liberal candidate for the riding, said his party wouldn't commit to reinstituting a national housing program, but said such issues could be resolved by reconvening an annual conference of provincial and territorial leaders. "Stephen Harper hasn't done that since 2009," Mr. Wong said. "You've got to have all three levels of government working together to address that issue."

Green candidate Wes Regan said his party also believes a national housing strategy, run through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., is the best way to boost federal support for the poorest Canadians."We need to start thinking like a country again and a national housing strategy is part of [that], instead of fracturing ourselves further and further and expecting non-profits or the private sector to pick up the slack and be very clever," Mr. Regan said.

A representative of the Conservative Party was unavailable to provide the official party platform on social housing, but in March, 2014, the federal government announced a five-year, $150-million commitment to affordable housing in British Columbia, which the provincial government promised to match. That was announced as an extension to its previous three-year agreement to fund $90-million of affordable housing, which the province also matched.

Rich Coleman, British Columbia's minister responsible for housing, said those agreements have worked well, even though he estimated his government fund is responsible for funding about 90 per cent of new social-housing units. He said it is up to municipal and provincial governments to approach their federal counterparts with reasonable solutions.

"You can't just say, 'Here's my hand out, I want money,'" he said at a news conference Wednesday. "Say, 'Here's an innovative opportunity that you guys might want to participate in with us,' and that's what we've been doing with the federal government since I became the minister."