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Part of downtown Toronto is seen in an undated file photo.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Fifteen Canadian cities will share $500-million in federal money as part of a plan to quickly build 3,000 new units of affordable housing across the country.

The Rapid Housing Initiative will dedicate half of its $1-billion in total spending to the 15 cities, which are among Canada’s largest, with Toronto receiving the most, at $203.3-million, followed by $56.8-million for Montreal and $51.6-million for Vancouver.

Municipal leaders welcomed the news, but opposition party critics and others cautioned that 3,000 new units falls well short of addressing homelessness.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Families, Children and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen made the announcement on Tuesday in Ottawa.

The remaining $500-million will be allotted based on applications from provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous governments and organizations and non-profit groups.

The government said the amounts allocated to the cities are based on factors such as the number of people in severe housing need.

The program will focus on building new modular multiunit rentals as well as converting non-residential buildings such as hotels into affordable multiresidential homes.

Mr. Hussen said the cities should be able to have some of the housing ready within months.

“They will be able to turn that into rapid housing before the winter,” he said. “And I say that because they have already pre-identified properties, existing buildings, that they can quickly convert to housing.”

Vancouver currently has a large number of homeless people camping in Strathcona Park. Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the city will likely pursue the idea of buying hotels, as the fastest approach.

“If you buy a hotel, you can move people in quickly and put an overdose-prevention site in the building. Then it’s there for decades rather than having parking lots full of tents,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Stewart said more homeless people are on the streets because they don’t want to go into shelters or because pandemic rules in many places prevent them from staying with friends.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the $13-million the Capital Regional District has been allocated isn’t enough to acquire hotels, and will likely be used to build temporary modular housing, which will take at least nine months.

Mayor Doug McCallum said Surrey’s $16-million will be used to build temporary housing on city land and that he hopes construction can start within 30 days.

The federal announcement provides new details on a pledge made in last month’s Throne Speech and a follow-up announcement that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. would run the program.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, who chairs the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Big City Mayors' Caucus, praised the fact that the federal government is sending the money directly to cities, rather than through provincial governments.

He said Edmonton plans to convert struggling hotels into a mix of short- and longer-term social housing.

“We’ve been talking to two dozen different hoteliers about acquiring hotels that are in distress, that are on sale,” he said. “It’s a buyers' market right now.”

The plan has also earmarked $31.9-million for Ottawa; $30.4-million for Peel Region; $24.6-million for Calgary; $17.3-million for Edmonton; $12.5-million for Winnipeg; $10.8-million for Hamilton; $8.7-million for Halifax; $7.5-million for London, Ont.; and $7.1-million for Quebec City.

Conservative MP and housing critic Brad Vis said the announcement is a positive start, but called on the government to be more transparent in explaining why nearly 50 per cent of the funding for cities is going to the Greater Toronto Area.

“I support funds going to the GTA, but I’m also very concerned as a British Columbian about the Downtown Eastside and the perpetual problems that we’re facing in this province, too,” he said. He also questioned how rural Canadians can benefit.

Last month, Toronto Mayor John Tory called on Ottawa and the province to support a municipal plan for 3,000 permanent housing units for the homeless in Toronto alone.

On Tuesday, Mr. Tory called the $203-million “a good start” that will help with efforts to accelerate the construction of supportive housing for the homeless, pointing out that two projects for quick-build “modular housing” are already under way. He said the housing cash indicates the Liberal government is a “good partner” for cities.

“It shows the importance of continued co-operation between all governments to address homelessness,” Mr. Tory said in a statement.

NDP MP and housing critic Jenny Kwan said she found it shocking that the announcement did not include specific funds for the urban Indigenous population. She also said the Liberal government has a poor record of delivering on its pledges to address homelessness.

“The allocation of 3,000 units will not even come close to addressing this homelessness crisis,” she said. “I say again to the minister, to the Prime Minister, it is not good enough.”

David Hulchanski, a community housing and development professor at the University of Toronto, said 3,000 units is a fraction of the 20,000 social-housing units a year that Ottawa subsidized until cuts in the 1990s.

“Here we are eight months into COVID, and five years into the Trudeau government, which is always talking housing, but not a lot is happening,” he said.

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