Social housing residents anxious as Ottawa ends subsidies
Nearly 200,000 low-income Canadian households depend on federal assistance to pay rent
Christine Crawford is a poet and seamstress who suffers from chronic, debilitating asthma. For more than a decade, her sunny apartment in Ottawa's Sandy Hill Co-op has been her treasured oasis.
Yet Crawford faces an uncertain future that's weighing on her this Christmas. In less than two years, Crawford could face the terrifying prospect of homelessness if the federal government fails to heed calls to work with provinces and territories to maintain social housing funding.
We're facing a situation where the end of subsidies is coming and we know it, and there isn't really a plan.- Christine Crawford, affordable housing project participant
"Am I scared? Some days, yeah, I am," Crawford said in a recent interview as she showed off her handiwork — some intricate darning on a co-op neighbour's torn Nordic sweater, evidence of the truly communal nature of co-op housing.
"And other days I make plans to find out where in Canada you can live on a senior's pension — I'll be 65 next year — and to find a place in Canada where they have such a thing as affordable housing, and go and live there."
Nearly 200,000 low-income Canadian households in co-op and non-profit housing projects depend on federal rent-geared-to-income housing assistance to pay their rent.
Social housing advocates fear much of Canada's existing co-op housing could vanish if the current federal funding level of $1.7 billion a year dries up once the long-term operating agreements expire between Ottawa and affordable housing operators.
Some affordable homes have already been lost, while low-income homes in Crawford's Sandy Hill Co-op are slated to lose their federal subsidies in February 2015.
Subsidy equalled mortgage
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. estimates that in 2013-2014, there will be a $23.3 million decrease in funding as the operating agreements end.
"The government has been cutting and plans to cut even more from its contribution to housing," NDP MP Mike Sullivan told the House of Commons earlier this month.
"The federal contribution to affordable housing was $3.6 billion in 2010. It has fallen to about $2 billion today, and it will fall further, to $1.8 billion by 2016. This is a 52 per cent cut over six years, at a time when the need for affordable housing continues to increase."
But Conservative MP Brad Butt, a social housing advocate who helped convince his government to renew funding to homelessness programs in its budget last March, says the Tories are hardly cutting funding to affordable housing projects.
Instead, he said, the mortgages on many social-housing properties have now been paid off, so the government has fulfilled its commitment.
"To suggest that because these agreements expire, every single complex can no longer provide subsidies to people based on their income is not true; many of these complexes will be in as good shape now, or better, once these agreements expire because the subsidy equalled what the mortgage payment was," he said.
"Those complexes should be able to continue to have the same profile that they have today, to provide subsidies to people and to continue to have those buildings operate just as they do today.... We shouldn't be subsidizing things that don't need subsidy."
The government won't turn its back on housing projects that are at risk once their operating agreements expire, Butt added, pointing to strong Conservative support of initiatives that provide housing for the homeless.
"We're going to have to look at some of these individual housing complexes across the country, and if they continue to need support because they are going to be what I call 'net losers' in the end, I think it's fair that we would sit down as a government and look at those on an individual basis with the individual provinces involved."
Cost-shared program considered
David Granovsky, government relations co-ordinator for the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, is on the front lines of the issue.
Granovsky is urging government to ensure that people like Crawford continue to qualify for rent supplement income assistance when the operating agreement on her housing co-op expires.
"There are lots of people like Christine out there, a lot of seniors, a lot of disadvantaged people who could lose their homes. They've been living in co-ops, and where are they going to go?"
The federation is proposing a cost-shared rent supplement program, delivered by the provinces and territories. Essentially that means the feds and the provinces would continue to provide the funding, while the provinces and territories would administer it.
Butt said the government is considering those options.
"We do need to look at what the continuation of the federal government's role is in providing rent supplement assistance, and we are doing that," he said.
Crawford says she's hoping for something more concrete from the government in the months to come as she faces the ordeal of finding another affordable place to call home that won't exacerbate her asthma.
"We're facing a situation where the end of subsidies is coming and we know it, and there isn't really a plan," Crawford says.
"I don't think anybody has a good idea of what to do."