Mar 17, 2009

Well, now that Alberta is doing it …


You could say that BC is more than a little sweet on Alberta. We love their individualistic, tax-cutting, tar-sanding grit. Can’t get enough of it. We even signed a silly economic agreement called TILMA (the BC-Alberta Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement) so we could be more like them. If Alberta went and ran massive budget surpluses while ignoring social services, we figured we could do that too.

But there is a new sheriff in oil town. And one bold new initiative is to end homelessness within ten years. As reported by the Wellesley Institute:

The Alberta government … released a dramatic plan to end homelessness in 10 years by committing $1.2 billion in capital investments and $2 billion in operating funding. The plan – based on the “housing first” approach (which provides immediate housing and then offers supports as required) – will lead to the creation of 11,000 new homes by 2012, according to the provincial government. Full details, including funding and implementation lines, will be released in next month’s provincial budget. Alberta’s plan – the first of its kind among the federal government and Canada’s provinces and territories – builds on top of a record of dramatic increases in affordable housing investments in recent years. Alberta cut provincial affordable housing investments in the early 1990s, as did many other provinces, but has dramatically increased investments in the past couple of years.

From fiscal 2007 to 2008 (the latest year for which numbers are available), Alberta’s housing investments jumped 140% to $4.57 billion – a record increase compared to other provinces. With today’s announcement, Alberta’s investments are scheduled to continue to increase. The critical details of the Alberta plan will be closely scrutinized by housing experts (more detailed analysis from the Wellesley Institute will follow), but the news has surprised more than a few housing advocates who don’t expect the Alberta government to be blazing the lead on critical social policy issues such as affordable housing. Compared to Ontario, for instance, Alberta – at about one-quarter the population – is making investments in affordable housing that are substantially higher than Ontario, which is leading to the creation of more affordable homes in that province. Much of the credit for today’s announcement goes to active and energetic housing groups in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and many other municipalities which created local 10-year housing plans and then “uploaded” the requirements to meet those plans to the provincial level.

So now that Alberta is doing it, let’s hear the Liberal and NDP plans to do the same. So how about some time lines and targets? Here is what Minister Coleman had to say when we released our poverty reduction strategy (which includes homelessness but is more comprehensive in addressing poverty overall):

“We’re committed to ending it, but they say, ‘Give us a time frame.’ You know what, it’s just not possible because you don’t know how many people with mental health and addictions are coming at you at any given time, so what you do is you do the job based on the population you have.”

The response from the Leader of the Opposition was only somewhat better:

“I think those are ambitious targets. I don’t know if that’s realistic, but I think you have to start somewhere.”

Actually, we did have a good news day today, as the BC government announced $300 million in new housing investments that will create 569 units in Vancouver and 478 units elsewhere in the province. I’m waiting to see the fine print, and while acknowledging that this is a good start, it is a bit late in the game. About six years ago we flagged the problem of poverty and homelessness as something that needed to be tackled – if only because the Olympics are coming to town. Yet, only now, right before an election, are we starting to see some action, and relative to Alberta the numbers are still on the small side.

UPDATE (March 23): An email from Jenny Kwan, the NDP critic on this issue (and my MLA) informs me of a policy release two days before I made my blog post:

The NDP commitment is to end the crisis in homelessness in 5 years with annual progress reports to the legislature on how that target is being met. The primary mechanism will be investing in a new housing program with 2400 units in year one and 1200 annually to year 5 – there will be support services connected. This is a total of at least 7200 units. We will reallocate the existing $250 million B.C. Housing Endowment Fund to kickstart the expansion of social housing immediately.

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