Edmonton budget talks will include $67M request for subsidized housing

Edmonton city council has given its initial thumbs up to directing $67 million from city coffers to develop 2,500 affordable housing units over the next four years.

2,500 make up only five per cent of Edmonton's affordable housing needs

Pine Creek Manor near 50th Street and Whitemud Drive is a 50-50 partnership between RMS Developments and Capital Region Housing, Edmonton's main social and near-market housing provider. (RMS Developments)

An Edmonton city council committee has agreed to consider investing another $67 million in a plan to develop 2,500 subsidized housing units over the next four years.

On Monday, city council's executive committee agreed to include the request during upcoming debates of the capital and operating budgets for 2019-2022. 
Christel Kjenner, director of housing and homelessness, says the city needs another $377 million from other developers and other governments. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The city's citizen services branch is requesting that amount on top of a previously approved $65.7 million, for a total of $132 million for affordable housing.

Christel Kjenner, the city's director of housing and homelessness, called the potential funding an "extremely significant action on the part of the city."

"I think it's an ambitious but achievable strategy."

But she emphasized the city needs funding from other levels of government to follow through with the initiative.

Building 2,500 units will cost a total of $509 million, meaning the city needs another $377 million from housing providers and provincial and federal governments.

The plan covers a variety of housing: 600 units for heavily subsidized permanent supportive housing, 500 units on city-owned land using affordable housing grants, 475 units on surplus school sites, 360 units as secondary suites. Another 200 units will go into city-owned housing. Another 365 units are listed under "existing commitments."

Possible private interest

While the city traditionally pairs with non-profit organizations to develop social housing, private developers are now getting involved in projects.

Curtis Way, the CEO of RMS Developments, told the committee that one of his projects near 50th Street and Whitemud Drive is a "true private-public partnership project for integrating market housing into subsidized housing."

Way said the recently opened building is a 50-50 partnership with Capital Region Housing, Edmonton's main social and near-market housing provider.

Of 174 units, 35 are subsidized but tenants can transition to market housing within the same building when they're ready.

Way said with higher taxes and rising costs for building materials, private developers struggle even with regular market apartments. 

He suggested the city be more open to private participation in affordable housing and provide things like lower fees for building permits and garbage pick up, and breaks on property taxes.

"The problem is so deep, so big, the city of Edmonton is not going to solve the problem on their own," he said. "As we all know, it's going to take federal, provincial and private money to even become close to manageable."

Larger need

The 2,500 units would not address the entire need. Edmonton has a shortage of social housing and affordable or near-market housing.

A city report shows 48,550 households in Edmonton spent more than 30 per cent of their annual before-tax income on shelter in 2016 and nearly 22,500 of those spent more than 50 per cent of their income on housing. 
Nadine Chalifoux says she spends 65 per cent of her income on housing, which is still subsidized. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Nadine Chalifoux, a client of affordable housing, attended the committee meeting Monday to voice support for the plan.

"If it goes into action soon, then I'm ecstatic by that," she said. "Too many times these things are just pushed to another group, pushed to another executive, pushed to another complete council. Then it gets changed and it gets dropped."

Chalifoux, who was homeless for a couple of years, said many communities are still uncomfortable with the idea of affordable or subsidized housing.

"I don't think that every neighbourhood is ready yet, but we're getting there," she said. "Housing is a human right, it should not be a privilege."

Coun. Aaron Paquette said the city's plan will help many people struggling to make ends meet.

"If anything, I wish that it was a little more aggressive," he said. "Just the thought of young people growing up being born into a situation where their opportunities may already be hampered is not a place we want to be as a city."

In August, council approved new guidelines that include the goal of having 16 per cent affordable housing in all Edmonton neighbourhoods.

Kjenner said when acquiring land the city will be more proactive in considering neighbourhoods that don't currently have affordable housing developments.

City council will debate the funding request at upcoming budget meetings later this month and in early December.

@natashariebe