Funding from a multi-billion-dollar federal government program to house homeless individuals or those at risk of being homeless has so far been disproportionately distributed in favour of ridings held by New Democrat MPs, while Canadians in ridings represented by Conservative MPs saw significantly fewer funds, fewer new housing units and fewer projects approved, according to a Global News analysis.
But federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser says no such partisan skew was intended for the distribution of the $4-billion Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) fund.
“I can assure you that there’s not decisions taken to deliberately fund one opposition party more than the governing party, and one opposition party less,” Fraser said Monday. “It’s a function of the projects that come into the fund for application that meet the scoring criteria.”
But that “scoring criteria” did introduce a bias into the program that did indeed see large urban centres — where Conservative MPs are generally underrepresented and New Democrats are significantly over-represented — receive more attention from the RHI while smaller municipalities received relatively less.
It’s a bias that housing and homelessness experts say is partly a function of the fact that homelessness in smaller centres or rural Canada has been much harder to quantify and, when one cannot count a problem, it’s next to impossible to qualify — or match the “scoring criteria” — for a federal funding program aimed at fixing the problem.
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And yet, leaders of the country’s smaller municipalities are saying with increasing frequency that homelessness is now a problem in their communities.
The latest example is St. Stephen, N.B. — population 4,510 — where the municipal council on Monday declared a local state of emergency over the homelessness crisis after an individual died in a public space. St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern said his community needs more resources from the province.
Housing experts and homelessness advocates are increasingly fielding calls from small-city and rural mayors across the country who are being confronted with a problem many of them once believed was a big-city issue only.
“What we do know is that we’re seeing tent encampments in small communities across the country. This isn’t just a big-city phenomenon,” said Ray Sullivan, executive director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association.
“The geography of homelessness has changed in the past several years. When it comes to the Rapid Housing Initiative there was, by design, an urban bias.”
Advocate: Rural communities disadvantaged
Tim Richter, the Calgary-based CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, agreed.
“One of the challenges we have in the homelessness world, in the housing world, is that rural communities are disadvantaged in almost all of these application-based programs,” Richter said.
“Homelessness exists in these rural communities, but it’s not measured. And so that presents a challenge if you’re doing an application-based program.”
Large urban municipalities often have municipal departments staffed with civil servants with specific training to manage social housing and homelessness. They will employ what amounts to census takers to physically count those sleeping under bridges, in parks and in encampments.
Rural or small-city homelessness often has a different character, says researcher Steve Pomeroy of McMaster University.
The homeless in rural areas and small cities may engage more often in “couch-surfing,” staying with friends or family for short periods before moving on. That makes it more difficult to enumerate a rural homeless population, a task made doubly difficult because smaller municipalities and grassroots organizations simply don’t have the manpower or expertise to manage and account for a homeless population in the way that big cities do.
“There is a natural urban bias where we count homelessness and therefore a naturally urban bias where we actually try to put the solutions because that’s where we found where the homeless folks are,” Pomeroy said. “And most experts in homelessness would say that means we probably undercount real homelessness.”
What does the data say?
Using data provided by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC), Global News matched up the 292 projects funded so far through RHI and assigned all but 12 of them to individual ridings.
Of those, 53 projects with a total of $301 million in federal funding were approved in ridings held by New Democrats. That represented 18.2 per cent of all approved projects and 18.7 per cent of all RHI funds distributed to date.
And yet, just 7.8 per cent of the country’s population lives in ridings represented by a New Democrat. New Democrats represent the urban cores in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Hamilton.
But while ridings with New Democrats benefited disproportionately better relative to the population New Democrats represent, those living in ridings represented by Conservative MPs did disproportionately worse. And Conservatives are over-represented in small-city and small-town Canada. Indeed, St. Stephen is one of those where a Conservative, John Williamson, is the MP.
Just over one-third or 34.4 per cent of Canadians live in a riding where the MP is a Conservative and yet, those ridings have, so far, received just 15 per cent of all RHI funds disbursed, have seen just 26 per cent of all RHI projects approved and have just 14.5 per cent of all new housing units created through RHI.
Ridings represented by Bloc Québécois MPs also appear to be slightly under-proportion by some metrics. BQ MPs represent 9.6 per cent of the population and while 8.6 per cent of all RHI projects approved were in BQ ridings, those projects only attracted 3.4 per cent of all RHI funds disbursed and represented just 4.8 per cent of all units created.
That said, eight of the 12 projects in the CMHC data set provided to Global News that could not be matched to a riding are in Quebec.
The project applicants in those cases were either the Société d’habitation du Québec, a provincial government agency or the City of Montreal and while they cumulatively received $163 million to build 1,374 new units, those units would have been built across the province, in ridings that could have been held by any party and likely would include some BQ ridings.
As for ridings represented by Liberal MPs, the proportion of RHI projects approved, funding amounts and units built are closer to the proportion of the population represented by Liberal MPs.
About 48 per cent of the country lives in Liberal ridings where 42 per cent of approved RHI projects exist, 49 per cent of the funding will be directed and 43 per cent of all new housing units will be created.
RHI best for housing at rents people could afford
The RHI is just one program in the federal government’s portfolio of housing programs and experts say it was relatively effective for its intended purpose. It was announced in 2020 as the pandemic hit as a way of moving people out of shelters, where they would be more likely to catch COVID-19, and into their own discrete affordable housing units.
“I think the RHI is one of the best programs in the National Housing Strategy,” Richter said. “I’ve been fairly critical of the National Housing Strategy (NHS) in that it’s really struggled to get housing to the people who need it the most, at a rent that they can afford. The Rapid Housing Initiative was probably the best program in the NHS for getting deep affordability.”
Those RHI housing units were sometimes converted hotel or motel units. In other cases, relatively new modular housing construction techniques were used to create new units. T
he RHI was also unique in that Ottawa covered up to $300,000 per unit of the capital costs — and that made it easier for the landlord to charge low non-market rents that would help those with what housing advocates call ‘deep affordability’ issues.
“This was one of the more popular programs under the National Housing Strategy, partly because it’s the only one that targeted deep levels of affordability,” Sullivan said.
Applications for RHI funding have closed, though the CMHC is still working through applications and is expected to announce more projects.