Canadian mayors press Liberals to fast-track affordable housing funding

Click to play video: 'Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi on federal budget 2017'
Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi on federal budget 2017
WATCH ABOVE: Liberal MP and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi joined Shaye Ganam on Global News Morning to talk about the federal budget – Mar 23, 2017

The head of the federal agency crafting a national housing strategy says the plan will be far more ambitious than just building homes and is looking to close the equality gap between the haves and have-nots.

In a speech Thursday, Evan Siddall, CEO of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., said the forthcoming plan would increase housing supply — up to 80,000 new affordable rental units, for instance — grow the economy and potentially double overall spending with help from the private sector.

Evan Siddall said CMHC aims to use $5 billion earmarked in the 2017 federal budget to stimulate over $16 billion of investments over 11 years in affordable housing, including increases in CMHC direct lending of $8 billion and $2.9 billion of matching co-investments from housing providers, governments and the private sector.

The extra $10.9 billion, if it were to come to fruition, would be above the $11.2 billion package the Liberals unveiled in their second budget.

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“Inequality threatens the very fabric of western society,” Siddall said during the speech in Toronto.

“I’ll be so bold as to suggest that this strategy is being created precisely to diminish the inequity that we see growing in our communities daily – to close the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.”

READ MORE: Federal budget 2017: Big investment in affordable housing, nothing to cool red-hot markets 

The comments are a change of tone from Siddall, who months ago tried to temper high expectations that the strategy would meet hopes that a national plan would move people out of shelters and into homes, increase the stock of affordable housing — an area the federal government has retreated from over the last three decades — and deal with concerns about affordability in the country’s biggest cities.

They also come as the government faces pressure from local officials to get the housing money to them faster than planned. At the moment, most of the cash won’t flow to cities until after 2022.

Representatives from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities are sitting down with cabinet ministers at their annual meeting to urge the Liberals to find a way to shift spending forward.

IN-DEPTH: Affordable housing in Canada

“We’ve been talking about this affordable housing crisis and particularly (the) social housing crisis, for almost a decade and we can’t wait for year 11 of the $81-billion plan to really see dollars flow,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said in an interview ahead of the meetings.

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“There’s an opportunity to act with more urgency for housing and so we’ll continue to press that point.”

Iveson, who chairs the federation’s big-city mayors caucus, said cities have projects ready to go to either upgrade the existing stock of affordable housing, some of which is in desperate need of repair, or build new units to alleviate long waiting lists for units in the country’s biggest cities.

Without details about the federal program, those projects can’t move forward, Iveson said.

READ MORE: ‘I’ve given up’: Affordable housing crisis intensifies in Canada 

Conservative infrastructure critic Dianne Watts said the Liberals needed to offer immediate support and not wait years while Canadians are being priced out of markets like Vancouver and Toronto today.

“Communities need significant support and there are a series of serious problems with the Liberals’ infrastructure plan that need to be urgently addressed.”

A Commons committee studying anti-poverty strategies recommended the government also rejig existing housing programs to expand eligibility and flexibility in how communities spend funding through the housing first program. Conservatives on the committee in a dissenting report urged tax reforms and federal push-back on municipal red tape and “snob zoning” that blocked or delayed affordable housing construction. New Democrats asked the Liberals to make housing a human right — something the government has consistently rejected.

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The money can’t flow without provinces signing on to funding agreements.

The Liberals intend to cover up to 40 per cent of municipal transit projects under the upcoming phase of the plan and mayors are hoping provinces agree to cover a similar share of the cost.

Iveson said the federal government will need to make that case despite the fact that provinces are wrestling with their own complicated political and fiscal realities.

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