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Harper's Conservatives cough up for housing

After months of pressure from housing advocates, the Conservative government quietly announced last Wednesday how it is spending the $1.9 billion it had set aside for national housing and homelessness programs.

The funding will renew the Affordable Housing Initiative, the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program and the Homelessness Partnering Strategy for another five years. The programs were to expire on March 31, 2009.

Although the announcement came during the middle of the election campaign, this was not an election promise. The Conservatives called it a “commitment” on how the budget money for this year will be spent.

At the press conference in Ottawa, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Monte Solberg, who is not running for re-election, and Environment Minister John Baird, told reporters the decision was made at a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 4, before the election was called.

But the low-key nature of the press conference puzzled some journalists, who speculated the Conservative Party was trying to keep the funding quiet after having spent the first part of the election campaign characterizing the Liberal Party as spendthrift.

Despite the oddness surrounding the announcement, housing advocates are pleasantly surprised the Conservative government has renewed the programs.

“That creates an incredible amount of relief for everyone involved in this sector and we now know that we can continue to work on homelessness,” says Alice Sundberg, co-chair of Metro Vancouver’s Steering Committee on Homelessness, which allocates money from the HPS to community organizations in the region.

Prior to the announcement, housing advocates were extremely worried the HPS would not be renewed or would be renewed close to the expiry date. Organizations that rely on the funding need roughly six months notice to reapply so they can retain staff.

The Conservative government created the HPS in 2006 with $269.6 million in funding over two years. It replaced the National Homeless Initiative, created by the Liberal government in December 1999.

The HPS aims to “prevent and reduce homelessness” and its cornerstone is the Homelessness Partnership Initiative, which gives money to community groups in 61 regions across the country. There are six regions in British Columbia: Kelowna, Kamloops, Nanaimo, Nelson, Prince George, Vancouver and Victoria. Vancouver received roughly $16 million from the two-year program.

But while community organizations expressed a great sense of relief, they were also quick to say the money is nowhere near enough to address the country’s rising homeless problem – Canada’s homeless population is estimated to be anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000.

Brian Eng, community engagement specialist for the Toronto-based Wellesley Institute, says the funding for the HPS and RRAP programs maintains the status quo, but the amount for the Affordable Housing Initiative can be seen as a “reduction”.

The 2006 federal budget made a one-time investment of $1.4 billion into the AHI (thanks to the NDP pushing the previous Liberal government). However, the Conservative government is only putting $625 million into the AHI over the next five years.

“We need to build more affordable housing and they actually appear to be reducing the amount of resources that they’re going to be putting into that,” says Eng.

Canada is the only G-7 country without a national housing strategy. In 1993, the federal government shifted the responsibility for building affordable housing onto the provinces.

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