Province increases eligibility for coveted affordable housing spots

The Alberta government is making more people eligible to apply for affordable housing by increasing the amount of savings a family can have and still qualify for the program.

Policy change allows those with assets up to $25,000 to be eligible for affordable housing

The NDP government's $1.2 billion investment in affordable housing will meet less than half the demand in Alberta. (CBC)

More Albertans will be eligible for provincially-owned or supported affordable housing under a new strategy introduced Monday by the ministry of seniors and housing.

The government has set aside $1.2 billion for the strategy over the next five years.

Families will be allowed to own more assets and still be eligible for affordable housing. Previously, a family could only have $7,000 in assets, including a vehicle or money in a savings accounts — but that threshold is being raised to $25,000. 
Lori Sigurdson, Minister of Seniors and Housing, announces changes to Alberta's affordable housing strategy on Wednesday June 26. (CBC)

"Forcing tenants to have less than $7,000 in assets perpetuates the cycle of poverty," Minister of Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson said Monday.

Under the previous regulations, tenants had to go through annual means testing. If they were found be over the income threshold, they were asked to move. 

"They're not able to save for their future," Sigurdson said of the pre-existing rules. "They're not able to save for their children's education … and there's simply no safety net." 

The government introduced a pilot program to allow tenants who start earning more money to stay in their homes with an adjusted rental increase.

The chief executive officer of Capital Region Housing, Greg Dewling, agreed that the previous system had shortcomings in forcing tenants to move if they managed to break through the income threshold.

"They get 90 days to move and so now they won't have to do that," Dewling explained. "So they can stay, raise their families and put down roots." 

John Kolkman, a research associate with the Edmonton Social Planning Council, supported the new approach. 

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson would like to see 1,000 permanent, supportive units for the chronically homeless. (CBC)

"I think it's a positive move because I really do think it can be counterproductive to have such a low asset limit," Kolkman said. "It tends to keep people trapped in affordable housing."

Kolkman said the new rules may spur more people to apply for affordable housing, but he doesn't think there will be a massive influx.

"But just as important — for existing tenants — it also allows them to have increased saving which they might be able to use for a down payment for a house, which would free up a social housing unit."

'It takes time to build'

The province will be scrambling to keep up with 15,000 Alberta families — 5,000 in Edmonton alone — on a waiting list to get into affordable housing. The government's new strategy includes building or renovating 4,100 units province-wide.

Dewling said Capital Region Housing is hoping for 2,500 new units over five to 10 years. Twice as many families are waiting for affordable housing. 

Executive director of Capital Region Housing, Greg Dewling, thinks the changes to the province's affordable housing policy will help low-income earners get ahead. (CBC)

"It takes time to build," he said. "You know, most people don't realize ... that it might be anywhere from five to seven years before you move somebody in. We want to shrink that down."

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson welcomed the new provincial strategy, which includes investment in finding homeless people more places to live.

There are an estimated 1,700 homeless people in Edmonton. Iveson said he would like to see 1,000 permanent, supportive units for those who are chronically homeless.

"I'd prefer to go as fast as possible," Iveson said, pointing out that the city has built 200 units in the past 10 years. "That remains our top housing priority but I recognize that there are other needs for growth of the social housing inventory and to deal with an aging population,"

Iveson believes housing the homeless gives taxpayers a good return on their investment.

"Avoided visits to emergency, avoided extended hospital stays that could be better met in a permanent supportive housing environment, and reduced interactions with police and justice system," Iveson argued. 

"That would get us essentially, we think, to that goal of ending homelessness," he said, adding the initiative includes a pledge of $11 billion from the federal government.