[Hpn] Liberals not keeping their promise to build some 20,000 affordable housing units

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Wed, 24 Nov 2004 03:49:40 -0500


Nov. 24, 2004. 01:00 AM

Homeless have a point
Liberals not keeping their promise to build some 20,000 affordable 
housing units for `needy Ontario families'


A protest by the homeless and their supporters ended with a whimper at 
Queen's Park yesterday.

After six protesters were arrested on Monday for pitching a tent in 
front of the Legislature, another dozen spent the night there sleeping 
out in the open before quietly dispersing yesterday morning.

They got some media attention, which focused mainly on the arrests and 
on an arcane constitutional debate about whether the Charter of Rights 
applies to the grounds of the Legislature.

Inside, the protesters were mostly ignored by the politicians, although 
the New Democrats devoted some of their allotted time in question period 
to the protest.

Their questions were met with bafflegab from the Liberal government.

This is unfortunate, because the protesters were actually making a valid 
point: The Liberals are not keeping their promise to build some 20,000 
affordable housing units for "needy Ontario families."

"We've invested $65 million so far, announcing 2,747 units," claimed 
Premier Dalton McGuinty in response to NDP questioning.

But most of that money was supplied by the federal government and most 
of those units were projects inherited from the previous Conservative 

To date, the Liberals' own efforts to build social housing have been 

Before getting into the Liberal record, however, some background is 

When they took office in 1995, the Conservatives scrapped the province's 
extensive social housing program. They called it a "boondoggle" and said 
the private sector would fill the void.

But as nearly everyone in the housing field acknowledges, the private 
sector is not good at meeting the needs of the low end of the market.

So virtually no social housing was built in the late 1990s, and waiting 
lists ballooned. More than 70,000 are on the social-housing waiting list 
in Toronto alone.

In 2001-02, the federal Liberals stepped into the void with a five-year 
program for social housing. Ontario's share of the program was $367 
million, or about $25,000 per unit of housing. The catch was that, in 
order to receive the federal money, the province had to match it with 
funding of its own.

The provincial Conservatives accepted this offer but said the matching 
funds would have to come from the municipalities. All the province would 
offer was a sales tax rebate, worth about $2,000 per unit.

Of course, the municipalities themselves didn't have the money, so the 
social housing projects sat on the shelf.

In opposition, the provincial Liberals promised to end this stalemate 
and unlock the federal housing money by providing the necessary matching 

But once in office, the Liberals bumped up against the fiscal reality of 
an inherited deficit.

In last spring's provincial budget, extra money was made available for 
health (the public's top priority) and education (McGuinty's priority) 
but for almost nothing else, including housing.

A few projects, the ones McGuinty referred to in the Legislature this 
week, were pulled off the shelf and allowed to go ahead, but with 
provincial subsidies of just $2,000 per unit.

Meanwhile, some $300 million in federal money for social housing 
languishes unspent, and the clock is ticking on the five-year time limit 
for accessing it.

"If we don't get the housing started soon, we're going to lose that 
federal money," warns Michael Shapcott of the Toronto Disaster Relief 
Committee, one of this week's protesters.

Not to worry, say the Liberals. Behind-the-scenes talks between Ottawa 
and Queen's Park are proceeding apace and could soon lead to a new deal 
that will free up the federal money and get some social housing built.

One option under consideration is front-end loading the program so that 
the federal dollars could be spent now without the need for provincial 
matching funds.

Then the province would shoulder the burden at the back end of the 
program, when, presumably, the provincial treasury would be in a better 
position to provide the funding.

A variation on this theme is that the federal government could get the 
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. to lend the necessary matching funds 
to the province at a low interest rate.

The new federal-provincial deal could also loosen restrictions on how 
the money is spent to permit some of it to go toward shelter allowances, 
or payments to low-income families to enable them to access housing in 
the private market.

With an apartment vacancy rate of more than 4 per cent in Toronto, this 
is seen as a good, short-term solution to the housing problem.

A deal of this sort would be a welcome step forward. The sooner the better.

Ian Urquhart writes on provincial affairs. His column appears Monday, 
Wednesday and Saturday. iurquha@thestar.ca.

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