Feds have ‘no choice but to listen’ to municipal pressure on affordable housing

Published in The Tyee | June 5, 2013 | Circulation: 800,000

Over the past decade, the average price tag of new homes in Canada has almost doubled, and homeownership remains hindered by skyrocketing personal debt.

And while the country’s municipal leaders head home from their annual conference, which ended June 3, boasting of a “united front” to bring the federal government back to the table to discuss affordable housing, so far they’ve been unsuccessful in lobbying for a national housing strategy.

Still, Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) vice president Raymond Louie says Ottawa “has no choice” but to assist cities and towns that are struggling to create affordable housing.

“We’re looking for the federal government to… support us at the low-end of the spectrum and in the middle, perhaps with tax write-offs to those who are building rental housing,” said Louie, who’s also a four-term Vancouver councillor, in an interview. “That was a key component of how rental housing was built in the past.”

Louie said he and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson — who chairs the FCM’s Big City Mayors’ Caucus — held separate meetings with federal cabinet ministers throughout the weekend, such as Infrastructure and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Denis Lebel, Trade Minister Ed Fast, and Heritage Minister James Moore.

They lobbied for greater federal housing and infrastructure involvement, Louie said. They also met with Thomas Mulcair, leader of the official Opposition, and Liberal chief Justin Trudeau, who also attended the FCM meeting.

“(We) brought forth those concerns to every minister that (we) met with, and to the opposition parties as well,” he said. “All parties need to hear that same message, and hopefully it’s brought back.”

Robertson set a housing-focused tone for the weekend when he emerged from the Big City Mayors’ Caucus pre-conference on May 30, saying that cities were increasingly concerned not only about homelessness, but also the ability of their residents to own their own houses. For over half of Vancouverites and many other Canadians, homeownership is simply not in the cards.

“The rising cost of housing is an issue we see in cities across the country. Cities are ready and willing to help protect the economy and solve this housing crisis but we need federal and provincial partners who are committed to working with us,” he said in a statement.

The FCM has warned that 500,000 Canadians could lose their homes, with $1.7 billion in social housing transfers from Ottawa running out in the next six years.

In the past, Robertson has likened the way cities must apply for federal infrastructure funding to purchasing a lottery ticket in hopes of plugging leaks in your roof.

But the federal government counters that it is partnering heavily on infrastructure investment with cities, and points to this year’s budget as an example of cooperation between levels of government, citing a new 10-year infrastructure commitment.

The conference also coincided with the release of the FCM’s State of Canada’s Cities and Communities report. Although short on detailed proposals, the 26-page document described that relationship as an “outdated” and “broken” framework more fitting to the “19th century,” and called for changes to Canada’s constitution to better include cities in matters affecting them.

“The reason is that our cities and communities continue to operate within an institutional framework better adapted to the realities of the 19th century than today’s rapidly shifting urban and economic landscape,” the report stated. “This outdated framework creates jurisdictional silos that hinder federal and provincial decision-making, cooperation and coordination, and often lead to ad-hoc policy interventions that mask or fail to address real problems and leave municipalities scrambling to fill the gaps.”

The report was not all bad news for communities. The authors also pointed to a “growing municipal policy footprint” over the past 10 years, which has resulted in cities gaining a much greater “role and influence in national debates.”

“Today, local governments and FCM are actively consulted on more and more of the national issues playing out in cities and communities,” the report noted.

Looking back on the four-day conference, Louie said that any discussion of affordable housing must consider the full “spectrum of housing” — from housing people on the streets to families being able to buy their own residences.

“In Vancouver, homeownership and the ability to own a home is a major, major issue for us,” Louie explained. “The concept of homeownership is becoming near-impossible for many of our own citizens.

Louie pointed to the co-op housing model, as well as a local cohousing project which would create partly shared living spaces, as solutions being explored by the City of Vancouver.

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