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Unspent Millions in Housing Fund

Most of small payout from $250 million goes to burn facility.

By Monte Paulsen 19 Feb 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes e-mail and invites respectful comment in the forum below.

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Proposed burn research unit, with survivors' family housing.

[*Note: this story was updated at 2:45 p.m. on Feb. 20 with comment from Housing Minister Rich Coleman and with one other addition. Both changes are indicated with an asterisk.(*)]

Today is Budget Day, an annual pageant at which Finance Minister Carole Taylor is expected to reveal how Premier Gordon Campbell's BC Liberals plans to spend the roughly $38 billion the province will collect from B.C. taxpayers in 2008.

Taylor is billing this year's budget as green in theme, much as last year's was termed "Building a Housing Legacy," promising "New supports for the homeless" and "More options for seniors."

In that 2007 budget, top billing went to the announcement of a $250 million Housing Endowment Fund, which promised "innovative housing solutions for British Columbians most in need."

*But one year later, only $2.65 million of that money has been given away, plus an additional $4.75 million promised. And three quarters of that was awarded not to help house the homeless or elderly, but to fund construction of family housing within a burn research facility promoted by the 3,600-member BC Professional Fire Fighters Association.

$650,000 to support youth, elderly and co-op housing

The 2007 budget placed $250 million in the Housing Endowment Fund. The funds were to be invested and the interest, estimated at $10 million a year, was to be awarded to innovative new housing solutions.

BC Housing's web site states that "Preference is given to housing initiatives that are consistent with the provincial housing strategy, Housing Matters BC," which both Premier Gordon Campbell and Housing Minister Rich Coleman have repeatedly described as the province's strategy to house homeless and the elderly.

Three of the four projects awarded funding by the new program appear to meet these loose criteria:

The Victoria Youth Empowerment Society was given $480,000 to build eight youth housing units in conjunction with a hospitality industry training program.

The Roofs and Roots Housing Cooperative was given $70,000 to help fund the conversion of a Victoria apartment building to five co-op units for low-income families and individuals.

And the SAFERhome Standards Society was given $100,000 to establish design criteria intended to help new residential or commercial building serve the needs of elderly residents. (For example, the program would specify placement of things like light switches and shower controls so that they can be easily reached by people of different mobility levels.)

Together, these three grants total $650,000.

Burn unit consumes $2 million

Dwarfing these grants is the $2 million award to the BC Professional Firefighters' Burn Fund for construction of eight suites of short-term housing for burn survivors and their families.

The Burn Fund is the charitable arm of the BC Professional Fire Fighters Association, which represents the province's 3,600 professional fire fighters and is best known for its "boot drives" and fundraising events.

The suites will be part of a planned $25 million Burn Fund Building that would also include a multimedia educational centre and a research facility for clinical trials in burn and wound healing.

Burn Fund executive director Tony Burke said that because burn survivors often require months of hospitalization in Vancouver, the cost of hotel stays impose long-term hardships on their visiting families. He said one family spent part of last year living in a travel trailer in the parking lot of BC Children's Hospital.

"The residential facility will be similar to the Ronald McDonald House," Burke said. "There will be a kitchen area, a common lounge, and eight private bedrooms."

The fund does not yet own land on which to begin construction, and with the BC Housing grant has only raised "about 20 percent" of the building's estimated $25 million price tag, according to a spokesperson. As a result, most of the $2 million is still sitting in the Housing Endowment Fund's bank account.

Burke said the fund is negotiating with the City of Vancouver for a Main Street site that would be convenient to both Vancouver General and BC Children's hospitals. He said he hoped the building would be opened in conjunction with British Columbia's hosting of the 2009 World Police and Fire Games.

'What we are trying to achieve'

*Housing Minister Rich Coleman returned The Tyee's call on the afternoon of February 19. He said announcements forthcoming in the "next few weeks" will raise the awarded total to $7.4 million.

Coleman praised the Burn Fund Building and said, "It's a great example of what we are trying to accomplish."

"The Housing Endowment was set up to fund innovative projects that might not fit into BC Housing's other, existing programs, through which we continue to spend plenty of money on supportive social housing," Coleman said.

His opposition critic disagreed.

"If the burn unit housing is a good idea -- and it seems to me that it is -- then the money for that housing should flow from the Ministry of Health through the normal allocation process," said MLA David Chudnovsky, the New Democratic Party critic for homelessness. "Instead, it appears to have come at the expense of resources that were promised to help B.C.'s homeless."

Chudnovsky also questioned why, one year later, only a quarter of the promised $10 million had been spent.

And he suggested that while up to 15,500 British Columbians are already homeless, it would be both more humane and more cost effective to spend the entire $250 million on the construction of social housing.

"As I travel around the province talking to homeless people, I find it difficult to explain why so much of the money earmarked for new homeless housing is still sitting in a bank account," Chudnovsky said.

Housing would have saved burn victim

"That $250 million would save 1,250 lives," agreed Wendy Pederson, a housing organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project, which serves residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Pedersen figures the province could fund the immediate construction of 1,250 suites of social housing if it were to spend the Housing Endowment Fund. She said that by spending the money, the province would save more money on unnecessary emergency services than it could ever earn in interest.

"That's our money, taxpayers' money," Pedersen said. "Minister Coleman is sitting on our money while record numbers of us are dying in the streets."

She noted that just two weeks ago, a homeless man died while trying to warm himself with a Coleman camp stove. Darrell Mickasko was camped in a West 4th Avenue alley just blocks from an overcrowded homeless shelter. His clothing caught fire and he died as a result of burns to 95 per cent of his body.

"I'm sure the burn unit is a worthwhile project," Pedersen said. "But it wouldn't have saved Darrell's life. A room would have."

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