Housing the chronic homeless a top priority for city council this year

Edmonton city council wants to get rid of myths surrounding affordable housing and has asked city staff to come up with a communications strategy to accomplish that. Council also agreed to make permanent supportive housing a priority over the next six years.

'Those are the broken people that nobody knows what to do with,' Coun. Michael Walters says

Edmonton city council wants to help create more affordable housing options for some of the city's most vulnerable populations. (CBC)

Edmonton city council wants to get rid of myths surrounding affordable housing and has asked city staff to come up with a communications strategy to accomplish that.

Council voted on Wednesday to develop an information campaign to make the "case for more affordable housing" in Edmonton.

The move to curb the 'not in my backyard' or NIMBY attitude comes as the city looks for sites to build new affordable housing projects in hopes of bypassing barriers they've met before. 

"We have to be realistic about the culture we exist in where affordable housing still gets a bad rap, rightly or wrongly," Coun. Michael Walters suggested to staff. "Mostly wrongly, but that's something we have to deal with."

Council passed the motion unanimously after getting an update from the city's new social development branch on the status of affordable housing in Edmonton.

What is affordable housing?

Affordable housing is broken down into four categories: permanent supportive housing, social or community housing, affordable near-market housing and affordable near-market home ownership.

In Alberta, affordable housing is subsidized by the provincial government.

Edmonton has 18,000 units deemed as affordable, far from enough to fill the demand, Christel Kjenner, the city's acting director of housing and homelessness told council.

The report shows people living in 48,550 homes in 2016 were paying more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter, up from 40,615 in 2001. 
In 2016, census data show 48,550 households struggled to make rent. (City of Edmonton)

"I was a little stunned to see that chart on the increase," Coun. Sarah Hamilton said at the meeting.

Federal Census data from 2016 also shows 22,350 renter households spent more than 50 per cent​ of their income.

The city needs 916 more permanent supportive housing units to fill the gap.

Council also agreed to make permanent supportive housing a priority over the next six years.

Walters put the motion forward to prioritize housing for the most vulnerable group of people, those usually suffering from chronic mental health and addictions issues.

"Those chronically homeless stay chronically homeless," he said. "Those are the broken people that nobody knows what to do with."

Mayor Don Iveson said the province included funding in its recent budget for 36 units. The city is now looking for locations, Iveson said.

"Because no one stands up for these folks, these housing units are always the last to get consideration," Iveson told council.

Coun. Scott McKeen said he wants council to be more decisive. 

"It's time to do this," McKeen said.

Coun. Aaron Paquette supports the initiative to help the chronically homeless get off the streets. 
Coun. Aaron Paquette, right, supports making permanent supportive housing a priority. (CBC)

"There are minds, there are dreams, there are goals, there are capacities, that are left untapped," he said. "And we would be very unwise to let that go."

McKeen said the city, police and health services spend millions a year on emergency room visits and policing costs to deal with homeless people.

He refers to the permanent supportive housing complex of Ambrose Place as a success story, where alcohol consumption is monitored and the housing has helped to reduce costs for emergency rooms and hospitals.
Ambrose Place in McCauley is seen as a success story for rehabilitation. (CBC)

New tools

Kjenner outlined new legislative tools the city may leverage later this year that will require developers to make more affordable units available in new buildings.

The new city charter with the province and amendments to the Municipal Government Act on 'inclusionary housing' may give the city more power to do this.

"We know they're going to change the landscape," Iveson said. "They're not a panacea but they are a new tool that will hopefully help us meet needs over time for affordable housing."

He said the new tools would likely help the city provide more affordable housing units closer "to the market end" as opposed to the highly subsidized end.

The citizen services department is scheduled to present a city-wide affordable housing framework June 7, outlining ideas for investments, including proposed locations.

A 2017-2021 work plan will also be presented to council in June and the department is asked to return to council in August with the public communications strategy.