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Spending figures undermine Coleman's “aggressive” housing claim

Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman said British Columbia has the most aggressive housing strategy in Canada bar none, but the facts are not with him.

“We have the most aggressive housing strategy in this country in actual fact,” he told the Tyee this week. “We've done more on that particular file than any jurisdiction in Canada, and we're doing more. We have more going in the ground than anyone else in Canada and we're actually more aggressive than anyone else in Canada.”

That's not, however, what the Wellesley Institute found. The institute is at the forefront of monitoring housing issues in Canada, and its yearly National Report cards are a good indicator of how the provinces compare.

This year's report card is not yet out, but Wellesley's senior policy fellow Michael Shapcott contributed a chapter on housing the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Alternative Federal Budget 2009, released in January.

A chart, which can be found on page 67 of the CCPA document, shows B.C. is in fact at the bottom for per capita spending on housing.

'BC is very low'

“If you measure investments, and it's an important measure, then B.C. is very low,” said Shapcott in an interview.

B.C. has a strong legacy of providing housing, and has done a good job in areas like providing housing for off-reserve aboriginals, he said. But in recent years B.C.'s housing spending has fallen behind.

“Dollars really do matter,” he said. “One of the best ways to really measure commitment is to look at the dollars. When it comes to dollars, B.C. just isn't in the same league as some of the other provinces.”

Not that any Canadian province sets the bar high, he said, compared to other industrialized countries such as Australia or in Europe. “We're doing pretty bad anyways. Provinces like B.C. are at the back of a pack that's at the back of the rest of the world.”

Shapcott said he used Statistics Canada's figures for population and for government spending to figure out how much is spent per person on housing. “It's the best available database,” he said. The figures are the most recent available, covering the fiscal year that ended in 2008.

“Minister Coleman is notorious for disputing the numbers,” said Shapcott. The numbers are fair though, he said. “If they're underestimating B.C., they're probably doing the same with all the other provinces.”

Shapcott sent the data he used. “The numbers are there and they speak for themselves.” Here's how the provinces compare:

Saskatchewan: $186

Newfoundland: $138

Nova Scotia: $155

Alberta: $130

New Brunswick: $96

Manitoba: $74

Quebec: $57

Ontario: $56

Prince Edward Island: $50

British Columbia: $48

Depends what you measure

So I went back to Coleman and asked him. When he says B.C. has the “most aggressive housing strategy” in Canada, how is he measuring?

“Very simply,” he said. "We're the only jurisdiction that's actually gone to an aggressive outreach program anywhere in the country. We took 4,000 people last year that were actually homeless and connected them with our outreach workers to housing. Eighty-five percent of those people are still housed.”

The Rental Assistance Program, which subsidizes rents, is another thing “nobody else is doing,” he said. Another program has housed 4,000 seniors.

And then there are the 45 buildings the government has built over the past few years to be used as supportive housing for people with mental health and addictions issues.

And there are traditional housing projects too, he said. “We're about the only jurisdiction that's aggressively building as well.”

Okay, but what about the money and the fact B.C. spends less per capita than any other province?

“I don't know how you do that per capita because it depends on whether you're measuring the capital or not,” Coleman said.

Since he became minister responsible for housing three years ago, he said, the annual operating budget has tripled from $120 million to $400 million. On capital they've spent at least another $300 million, he said.

And how does he think we compare to other provinces? “Each province is a bit different.”

Bluster blocks action: James

Minister Coleman's assertion that B.C. is the “most aggressive” in Canada on the housing file is shocking, said NDP leader Carole James.

“I'm speechless,” she said. “I should not be surprised by this government's bluster, but this one made me speechless.”

Whether you look at Statistics Canada figures on housing spending, municipal homelessness counts or child poverty rates which have been highest in the country for five years in a row, she said, it's clear B.C. has been doing poorly.

“All of these statistics point to the fact B.C. hasn't done enough when it comes to poverty and homelessness,” she said. “They all point to the same thing in varying degrees, which is B.C. has a terrible record when it comes to poverty and we haven't addressed the issue.”

The rise in homelessness throughout B.C. has been obvious, she said, and is something she hears about from citizens, mayors and Chambers of Commerce as she travels the province.

The Liberal government denies how bad the problem is, she said. “They're just continuing to bluster and say they're doing everything they can,” she said. “Until they open their eyes and see the depths of poverty on our streets, they're not going to address it.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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