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Ottawa to offer direct subsidies to low-income tenants

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS/File

The federal government will announce direct rent support for low-income Canadians in addition to spending billions on traditional and new forms of social housing as part of the Wednesday release of its long-awaited national housing strategy.

A new portable housing allowance will top up similar provincial and municipal programs that provide rent subsidies for people on waiting lists for social housing.

The broad outline of the national housing strategy was announced in the March budget. It set aside $11.2-billion over 11 years in new money. A senior government official told The Globe and Mail that Wednesday's announcement will include additional federal money, in part to pay for the housing benefit, that was not mentioned in the budget.

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The official said the plan is bigger than expected.

The plan will be promoted as a $40-billion, 10-year strategy. That figure includes the $11.2-billion announced in the budget, the new federal money, existing federal housing spending and provincial housing money contributed through cost-sharing programs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will make the announcement at Lawrence Heights, a planned Toronto Community Housing mixed-income community south of the Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Jean-Yves Duclos, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, will make the same announcement in Vancouver.

Observers expect the strategy will focus on the housing needs of low-income Canadians, with less attention devoted to the affordability concerns of middle-income people, who have faced sharp spikes in home prices in recent years.

One of the main thrusts of the strategy is to shift traditional social-housing models toward mixed-income developments, which are considered to be more sustainable over the long term.

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Mixed-income communities, such as Toronto's St. Lawrence neighbourhood, have long been praised by urban planners as a better model than traditional social housing, but cities have lacked the money to dramatically expand the concept.

Recent government spending has spurred some new experiments, such as Edmonton's Londonderry. The province is covering two-thirds of the $72-million project, a 240-unit mixed-rent redevelopment that will replace an 80-unit project built in the traditional social-housing mould.

The goal is to have higher-rent units subsidize the lower-rent spaces. Advocates view it as a way of addressing the high demand for social housing while also creating more supply in the broader housing market.

"A mixed-income model is something that makes a lot of sense," said Jenny Gerbasi, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the deputy mayor of Winnipeg. "We have to maintain our existing social housing. We have to create new social and affordable housing. And by doing it with mixed housing, then you are [also] creating housing for people just in general."

A large part of the new housing strategy will be used to create a $5-billion National Housing Fund managed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The goal of the fund will be to bring governments, the private sector and community groups together to work on large-scale community renewal projects, such as mixed-income housing.

Canadian municipalities are extremely concerned that long-standing federal agreements for social housing are scheduled to expire over the coming years. The government has said it will maintain this "baseline" funding, but the budget did not put a dollar amount to that pledge.

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Municipalities have stressed the importance of repairing existing social housing, and Wednesday's announcement is expected to fund the renovation of 300,000 units. Another expected measure is a promise to introduce legislation declaring housing a fundamental right.

The budget did not make reference to a portable housing allowance; however, that idea has received considerable debate in recent months and was raised as part of federal consultations on the strategy.

The FCM has supported the idea – provided it is offered in addition to funding for new and existing social housing.

"We feel that's a very important measure as part of the puzzle. We don't want it to come at the expense of [funding social] housing," Ms. Gerbasi said.

Wednesday's strategy is not expected to say much about housing on First Nations reserves. The government is working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit organizations on separate housing plans.

One criticism of the government's approach to housing is that it is overly focused on low-income Canadians and social housing. A report released last week by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute noted that represents just 6 per cent of the housing market. Canadians who are not in low-income groups still have strong concerns about affordability, and the report's authors questioned whether Ottawa is doing enough to address those concerns.

Some provinces and municipalities already offer rent subsidies for people on social-housing waiting lists or who are victims of domestic abuse.

Greg Dewling, of Edmonton's Capital Region Housing Corp., said a new housing benefit will be helpful as long as it's part of a broad policy response to housing shortages that includes new affordable and mixed-income housing.

Mr. Dewling is overseeing the Londonderry housing project and said a larger federal role in housing can help encourage more of those types of developments.

"We can't keep doing things the way we've been doing it the past 30 or 40 years," he said. "We just know that that model's not sustainable for the future and we have to do a little bit of a refresh or reboot in the way we are doing affordable housing."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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