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‘We don’t know why it’s taken so long’: critics question the wait on fed-prov housing agreements

NDP social development critic Sheri Benson says that government needs to be more forthcoming on the state of the bilateral housing funding agreements with the provinces and territories. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade.

 

‘We don’t know why it’s taken so long’: critics question the wait on fed-prov housing agreements

By EMILY HAWS APR. 10, 2019
Liberal parliamentary secretary Adam Vaughan says most of the remaining agreements are on the cusp of an announcement.

Housing critics are questioning why the government is taking so long to finalize the cost-sharing housing agreements with provinces, since it’s been more than a year since the unveiling of the Liberals’ National Housing Strategy. But many of the accords are on the cusp of an announcement, says Liberal MP Adam Vaughan (Spadina–Fort York, Ont.), who is the parliamentary secretary to Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos (Québec, Que.).

NDP MP Sheri Benson (Saskatoon West, Sask.), her party’s social development critic, told The Hill Times last week that only five of 10 provincial agreements have been finalized.

“We don’t know what the hold up is, we don’t know why it’s taken so long,” she said, adding she’s asked the government several times for answers. “The national housing strategy was rolled out in November 2017, so we’re all waiting. And a big part of the $40-billion [allotted to the strategy] is that cost-sharing.”

The five agreements were made with Ontario (signed June 18), British Columbia (June 26), New Brunswick (July 5), Prince Edward Island (Jan. 16), and Alberta (March 15), according Mr. Duclos’ office. Ontario’s deal is worth $4.2-billion, while British Columbia’s is for $990-million, New Brunswick’s is for almost $300-million, Prince Edward Island’s is for almost $15-million, and Alberta’s is for $678-million.

All of the deals are for 10 years and are split equally between parties. Each agreement differs due to provincial priorities, but all are meant to protect and expand social housing and increase affordability.

Conservative MP Karen Vecchio (Elgin–Middlesex–London, Ont.) said she thought the agreement announcements would have to lined up within weeks of each other.

“I would have expected them to be done months ago, to be honest, because now we’re closing in on the election. We’re six months away from an election and there’s nothing done there, so why are they not done?” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re not doing it in [crunch time], that we’re actually doing it properly.”

Liberal parliamentary secretary Adam Vaughan says it’s hypocritical of the NDP to say his government’s plan is back-end loaded, when theirs has a similar timeline. The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Munster

Mr. Vaughan said some of the other provincial agreements are close, but have yet to be announced due to competing concerns such as provincial budgets, for example.

“All of the major provinces are all signed on, Quebec’s always the last to come, but we’re just finishing that,” he said, suggesting that the government change after the province’s October election had an impact on negotiations.

It’s also not possible for provinces to go back on their commitments, said Mr. Vaughan, adding some in Ontario were concerned due to the recent change to a Progressive Conservative government in June.

Valérie Glazer, a spokesperson for Mr. Duclos, said in an email that the office “will have news on the progress in the very near future. All agreements are expected to be signed in the coming months, so before the election.”

The Hill Times contacted each of the provinces without deals to see what the hold up was.

Manitoba’s expected allocation is $300-million over nine years, said a provincial spokesperson in a statement, while a Saskatchewan government spokesperson and it’s “pleased at the progress we have been making,” and that details would become available in the coming weeks.

Although she couldn’t get into specifics, Nova Scotia government spokesperson Shannon Kerr said in a statement that parties are working to finalize a nine-year agreement, and that the province is “ensuring that the unique housing context and needs [of] Nova Scotia are reflected in” it.

The bilateral agreement comes with three-year action plans, she said, and Nova Scotia has opted to finalize the specifics of the action plan with the government “simultaneous” to the agreement’s signing.

These action plans detail the initiatives and reporting requirements that will advance the National Housing Strategy’s objectives, and outline how longterm provincial housing outcomes will be advanced.

“We are happy to report that a draft of the first three-year action plan has been submitted to [the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation] and we continue to work with them to finalize the outstanding details,” Ms. Kerr said.

The funding is expected to be available for Nova Scotians to claim in 2019-20, pending the signing, she added.

The governments of Newfoundland and Quebec didn’t respond by deadline.

Housing a hot-button issue for Liberals, NDP
The housing policy file is heating up as the parties move into election mode, with the government announcing several programs in the most-recent budget.

March 19’s budget unveiled the First-Time Home Buyer Incentive, which will see the CMHC provide five per cent of a first-time buyer’s down payment for an existing home, or 10 per cent for a new build. The shared-equity mortgage with the CMHC is meant to reduce the amount borrowed, with the money repaid when the home is resold, for example.

It’ll cost $1.25-billion over three years, starting in 2019-20. To be eligible, a homebuyer’s household income needs to be less than $120,000, and the mortgage can’t be more than four times the household income, or $480,000.

Conservative social development critic Karen Vecchio says that the Liberals first-time home buyer incentive, which was announced in the budget, will work well for those who don’t live in major cities. Photograph courtesy of David Chan

The program is good for most Canadian markets, said Ms. Vecchio, but it won’t help those living in big cities, where housing costs are high.

First-time buyers can also now withdraw up to $35,000 from their Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSPs) without being taxed, up from $25,000.

On April 4, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), Mr. Duclos and Mr. Vaughan were also in Toronto to announce a $1.3-billion partnership with the City of Toronto to support the renovation of more than 58,000 affordable housing units starting this spring.

Toronto and Vancouver are some of the housing hotspots in the country, however, the market seems to be cooling.

The Toronto Real Estate Board reported recently that sales were flat in March compared to a year earlier, although benchmark prices rose 2.6 per cent. Vancouver’s real estate board reported that March resales fell to their lowest level in more than three decades, and prices continue to decline.

Opposition critics say the the government’s 10-year housing strategy is all talk and no action, as most of the money will be spent after the election. However, Mr. Vaughan said that it’s hypocritical, particularly for the NDP to say that, given its plan to build 500,000 affordable units over the next decade will also have a lot of post-election action.

“The last five years of the [NDP] program are after two elections, so this notion that they’re front-end loading the program—they explicitly say in their announcement they’re not, it’s going to be done over 10 years,” he said.

The NDP’s larger housing plan hasn’t yet been released, but leader Jagmeet Singh (Burnaby South, B.C.) announced in February that he would reinstate 30-year CMHC-insured mortgages, which would give people more wiggle room in their budgets, and offer resources to make it easier to co-own homes.

Mr. Singh also called on the government to build 500,000 new affordable housing units, to stop applying GST to the cost of building new affordable units, provide a subsidy to renters who spent more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, and to double the first-time home buyer’s tax credit from $750 to $1,500.

“Housing is definitely going to be a priority when we look at how we’re moving forward,” said Ms. Vecchio, saying it ensures successful Canadians. The election platform is currently being finalized, she said, but cutting red tape could help increase housing supply, and a housing policy will play into broader poverty and homelessness reduction strategies.

A strong economy will also be a platform focus, she said, as it ensures a strong social safety net.

 

ehaws@hilltimes.com
The Hill Times