Olympic housing promise dropped

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

B.C. in the lurch as promised $1.5-billion fund left out of budget

Frances Bula

The disappearance of a promised new $1.5-billion housing program from the federal budget is very bad news for B.C. and especially Vancouver as they prepare for the Olympics, Vancouver politicians and housing advocates say.

“We cannot rebuild our cities and we cannot prepare for the Olympics without money for housing,” Coun. Jim Green said Friday after an emergency conference call with other representatives from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on the issue. “It’s a real problem for B.C. and Vancouver.”

This week’s budget shocked housing advocates nationally. The federal Liberals had campaigned on a promise of adding $1.5 billion in housing money over the next five years; two of the three opposition parties had supported that. But there was no mention of any new programs in the budget.

Labour and Housing Minister Joe Fontana’s explanation to housing groups has been that it was hard for him to get any extra money, because there is still $800 million left from the previous housing program initiated in 2001. Only B.C. and Quebec took advantage of that program, which required provinces to put up matching money in order to get federal housing dollars, and obtained the full share allotted to them from that program.

Green says that leaves B.C. in the lurch.

“It penalizes British Columbia and Quebec that have been using the program. This is totally unfair to the places that want to deal with the issues and are prepared to put up their part of the ante.”

Not only should there have been a new program, but B.C. should have received a special allocation to help get ready for the Olympics, Green said.

He said the city signed on to the Olympics on the understanding that it would not mean displacing the poor or creating a homelessness problem, as has happened in other cities.

Green said he is going to advocate that the municipalities’ federation push for a couple of alternative strategies.

One is that provinces that are willing to build housing should simply be able to take money from the allocations of provinces that aren’t.

“If there are provinces unwilling to use their allocation, then British Columbia and Quebec and any others should be able to take those out of the pool and apply them. They shouldn’t be penalized because those others aren’t doing their job.”

Green said politicians also need to work with provincial municipal associations to put pressure on other provinces to get on board.

The absence of new money for housing came as a complete surprise to many.

Green said he had been in meetings at various times in the past few months and Fontana and the minister of state for communities, John Godfrey, had never indicated there was any thought of wavering from the $1.5-billion promise, which many were counting on. Fontana and his staff recently criss-crossed the country, holding meetings to solicit people’s ideas on future housing needs and programs.

NDP MP Libby Davies, who represents Vancouver East, said her party was stunned by the news.

“I thought that they would make at least the minimum commitment of $1.5 billion. This was not about a lack of capacity to provide the dollars,” she said.

The NDP won’t be supporting the budget, in part because of the housing issue.

Davies said it looks to her as though the Liberals decided that housing was an expendable issue, one that wouldn’t cost them too many political points.

Vancouver advocate Linda Mix, of the Tenants Rights Action Coalition echoed that.

“It says to me that homelessness is not a priority.”

Vancouver‘s housing centre director, Cameron Gray, said the federal decision is a blow for Vancouver, which had been hoping to create 800 units a year of social housing for the next several years as part of its housing plan.

Although B.C. just got its $42-million cheque from the federal government for the second phase of the old housing program, that will go fast and it’s now unclear how long B.C. will have to wait for more money while other provinces catch up.

“What happens in the next couple of years while those provinces are coming onstream?” he asked. “Every year, we just dig ourselves a bigger hole in the social deficit.”

B.C. Housing Minister Murray Coell was unavailable for comment. However, staff in his office said it was a disappointment, but the province does have the $42-million, phase-two money this year, and people are hopeful that the federal government will pull things together next year and come up with extra money.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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