COVID-19 crisis puts affordable housing loans on pause

Employees the Prince Edward Island government had assigned to the Affordable Housing Development Program were reassigned 'to focus on the essential services that we have to provide.'

P.E.I. government announced $2.25-million program in October

Developers of affordable housing units were being offered forgivable loans of $45,000 per unit before the program was put on pause. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The Prince Edward Island government has put its Affordable Housing Development Program on hold because of COVID-19. 

The program provides loans to developers to build affordable housing units in the province. Up to $45,000 per project is available to developers who qualify. It can be used for proposed buildings, but also for those that are already under construction.

The program was put on hold because of COVID-19, said Sonya Cobb, the director of housing services for the province. 

"We put the program on hold initially to be able to focus on the essential services that we have to provide as well as some of the COVID-related response programs," said Cobb. 

Some staff who worked on the affordable housing development program were reassigned to other work, like the student food program, she said. 

The Affordable Housing Development Program has not yet restarted. 

"We would expect to see the program opening up again this fall," said Cobb. "We definitely will be continuing with the program — we just want to monitor and [do] a little bit of evaluation and basically reset to reflect the current environment that we're in." 

Need didn't stop: housing advocate 

Ainsley Kendrick, a member of the P.E.I. Fight for Affordable Housing group, says she'd like to see the program restarted sooner rather than later. 

"We understand that COVID has had a financial impact on the province but we are still in a housing crisis. People are still in need here; rental rates are very high," said Kendrick.

People are still in need here; rental rates are very high.- Ainsley Kendrick, housing advocate

With the loans not being offered, Kendrick said the province is losing out on the opportunity to build projects right now. 

"And that is important and it needs to continue. That program needs to continue now because we're not ever gonna get through this crisis," she said."I really hope that they find a way to be able to continue this program because it's super important. It's very, very needed."

22 projects before initiative put on ice

Before the pause, the program had 22 projects underway. Since it was put on hold, the program has continued to spark steady interest, said Cobb. 

The people who have contacted the government about the program have been told to hang on to their proposals until the program reopens for applications, said Cobb. 

The province aims to create 1,200 new affordable housing units over the next five years through a variety of means, she said. So far, the province has 700 affordable units underway. 

Vouchers provide help too

But she added: "The Affordable Housing Development Program is a small part of our initiatives to achieve that 1200-unit goal.

"By far we've been able to support more people through the mobile rental vouchers that we've committed to and we'll continue to expand on that." 

Mobile rental vouchers are for individuals who already have an acceptable place to live, but are struggling with affordability issues. The vouchers serve to reduce a person's rent to an affordable level.

"That's a really quick way to support people who are currently living in the market where they want to live. And you know, that's very important in terms of meeting their needs," she said. 

Call for root causes to be addressed

While Kendrick agrees there is a need for cash-strapped tenants to be able to afford their rent right now, she said the voucher system does not address the cause of the tough housing situation on the Island. 

"Our group sees that completely as a Band-Aid solution. It's not solving the crisis. It's just putting a Band-Aid on what exists and it's not going to change unless we have more housing," she said. 

People struggling with housing affordability in P.E.I. can apply for assistance through two programs with the province, The Seniors Housing Program or the Family Housing Program.  People who apply are routed to relevant programs, including projects in the Affordable Housing Development Program and mobile rental vouchers. 

For people who apply through those two programs, rents are set at 25 per cent of their income. 

"The goal we're trying to achieve is to provide safe, affordable, appropriate housing for Islanders," said Cobb. 

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