Social housing and the Londonderry redevelopment

This original blog was posted by Councillor Dave Loken, February 17, 2016 on his web page. It has been re-posted here on Open Door with Councillor Loken's permission.

Social housing has been providing homes in Canada most actively since the end of WWII. The role of social housing was once to provide those coming back from war a place to live. Now, it is to support those who are fighting the battle of affordable housing with a place to call home. Affordable Housing is defined as “permanent housing that costs less than 30% of total household income for low-and moderate- income Canadians” and is a definition accepted by both the government of Canada and the CMHC.  According to Statistics Canada 47,000 renters in Edmonton are living in a home they cannot afford, or is over the 30% of income threshold.

Federal funding for social housing has been in decline since the early 1990s, and it is set to expire completely by 2040. This poses a serious challenge to the ability to ensure that households in need are able to access safe, suitable, and stable housing. The federal government is currently providing support investment in the affordable housing framework, which is a five year commitment of $253 million per year. This is a relatively modest investment considering the $1 billion lost through the expiry of existing cost shared agreements for the national housing portfolio. Currently, neither the federal government nor the province have committed to continuing funding for social housing after the end of the operating agreements.

Social housing refers to a wide range of rental and continuing units which are affordable to low-income tenants from a wide range of demographic groups. In Edmonton, an estimated 11,600 social housing units will be affected by expiring operating agreements, representing approximately $22 million in federal funding. These units are scattered throughout the city, and they include seniors self-contained housing, non-profit housing, continuing co-operative housing, urban native housing, rent supplement housing, and community housing. Many social housing units are at risk, as it has not been possible for providers to pay for the operating and capital costs of managing these projects while providing rent-geared-to-income for very low income tenants.

Unfortunately, the critiques surrounding social housing have been the same for decades, and many of them are untrue. The two main critiques are in regards to cost and crime. Both of these concerns are valid, but they carry baggage that is inaccurate.

The fact is that providing social housing actually costs the system, and tax payers, less than providing care to chronic and episodic homelessness. It is estimated that the housing problem costs the Canadian economy over $7 billion per year. By “not investing adequately in housing for the poorest Canadians, healthcare, justice, and other tax payer-funded costs increase.” The At Home/Chez Soi report found that spending $10 on housing and supports for chronically homeless individuals with the highest needs resulted in $21.72 in savings related to healthcare, social supports, housing, and involvement in the justice system. Investing in housing and supports for chronically homeless individuals costs less than half of what the system would spend on other areas if social housing is not invested in.

Studies have shown that those who are chronically homeless often have additional complications of mental health and addictions challenges, and are “unable to find and afford housing that would provide a platform for recovery.” Homelessness results in other social complications. It has been shown that when individuals do not have to worry about where they will be spending the night, they drastically improve in other areas of their lives. Instead of focusing their energy on finding a decent place to sleep, they can focus on finding employment, food, and other needs. And when energy can be focused on these areas, crime decreases as well. By spending a day in the courthouse you realize that the types of crimes that are committed by those who do not have a home to return to are petty crimes, like stealing food for themselves and their family to eat. When energy can be focused on finding employment and to meeting other needs, instead of finding a safe place to sleep, the need to steal for sustenance is no longer an issue.

The Housing First program recognizes the link between having adequate housing and resulting success in other areas of an individual’s life. The Housing First approach is a program that aims to help homeless individuals quickly access and sustain permanent, affordable homes. This approach has been successful in many cities already, including Lethbridge, which has cut it’s homeless count in half. The Housing First philosophy believes that people are more successful in moving forward with their lives if they are housed first. Housing is a pre-condition for recovery, and the Housing First approach provides housing with supports in place, which increases the chances of individuals overcoming chronic homelessness.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporatino (CMHC) considers a household to be in core housing need if its housing does not meet one or more of the standards for adequacy, suitability, or affordability, and cannot access acceptable local housing without spending 30 percent or more of their income on shelter. In the last Edmonton Census, 48,225 households in Edmonton were considered to be in core need. This number is an increase of 7,005 households where housing is too expensive, too small, in need of repair, or a combination.

There is also stigma surrounding those who cannot afford to live in market housing. In 2011, 27% of renters in Edmonton were experiencing core housing need (spending 30% or more of their income on rent). 24, 770 renter households in Edmonton spent more than 50% of their income on household costs. Given the changes in the economy, it is probable that this number has increased. Individuals who cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Edmonton include restaurant servers, retail clerks, hair stylists, and barbers. Surprised? I was. Even more surprising is that nurses, plumbers, and dental hygienists are some professions that cannot afford to purchase a single detached home in Edmonton on a single income. Rental vacancy rate in Edmonton is low. A 3% vacancy rate is considered to be a balanced rental market; in October 2014 the Edmonton rental vacancy rate was at 1.7%. This is probably because professions like nurses, dental hygienists, and plumbers are being priced out of purchasing homes in the housing market, and so they must continue to rent. There is a large demographic of middle-income individuals who are being priced out of purchasing, and so they continue to rent. By having these individuals continue to rent, there are less rental homes available to the lower income individuals, which means that landlords can charge higher prices for rent. This means that the middle-income professionals can afford the rental properties, while lower-income individuals get priced out.

Organizations that serve those who struggle with housing are struggling themselves. Due to a lack of units, people end up on wait lists to get subsidized housing. Because people have to wait for these units, they often get evicted out of their market priced homes because they cannot afford them, forcing them on to the streets. Once these individuals are on the streets, it is difficult for service providers to follow up with these individuals and to make sure that these people are looked after. The invisibility of squalor is a danger.

Edmonton has a vision to eliminate poverty in the city within a generation. A key factor in this is establishing affordable housing for both the homeless, and those at risk of becoming homeless. The Edmonton 2014 homeless count was at 2,252. Children and youth (persons 24 years of age and under) accounted for approximately 29% of the homeless population. The Edmonton Food Bank serves 15,000 people per month, and that number is rising. It has increased already by 2000 people since 2013. It is likely that people are giving up food to keep their housing, relying on the Food Bank to be able to provide for themselves and their families.

The City believes that safe, adequate, affordable housing is fundamental to the physical, economic, and social wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities. A sufficient supply of affordable housing helps to support a healthy labour market, which is crucial to enable long-term financial stability for low income households. Social housing providers have been constrained in their ability to build up savings to pay for the maintenance of their units because of the wording of their agreements. This has resulted in projects having deferred maintenance or limited abilities to redevelop the housing. This has resulted in 68% of the Edmonton units managed by the Provincial Social Housing management bodies to be in critical or poor condition. This is something that we want to change. The Affordable Housing Strategy for the City of Edmonton has set goals to increase the supply of affordable housing in all areas of the city, and to maintain the supply of affordable and market rental housing throughout the city.

Assuming the city maintains its participation in funding social housing at the current level, city administration estimates the need for an additional $4.6 million per year for the next 13 years in order to regenerate all 13 wholly city-owned social housing projects. The Social Housing Advisory Group found that we need a new way of delivering housing for households in need other than the current social housing model. A key feature of this new way could be viewing social housing as a contributor to diverse, inclusive communities with the potential to act as a catalyst for community development. To make a success of regenerated social housing stock is the reinvestment of social housing dollars into the sector. Integrating social housing into the wider community, instead of having stand-alone projects, can provide the opportunity to contribute to tenant well-being and local economic development. A broad range of housing choice provided in all areas of the city helps to contribute to more inclusive communities, positive social outcomes, and the wellbeing of children, Aboriginal households, and immigrants. This is what the Londonderry Redevelopment project aims to do.

Londonderry Redevelopment is a pilot project that aims to make a strong impact for Edmontononians facing homelessness. It is a cutting edge construct in social housing that moves away from the Soviet-like lodging blocks and is inspired by modern developments, such as Toronto’s Regent Park. Chesterfield House in North Vancouver is a Canadian example of supportive housing success. Similar to Londonderry, an area of North Vancouver was redeveloped and had its density increased in order to accommodate those at risk of homelessness due to complications with mental illness.

For perspective, 22% of all housing in Sweden is social housing.  In Austria, the municipality of Vienna owns/directly influences close to half of the housing stock. Vienna in particular has social housing which includes restaurants and saunas! While Edmonton may not quite be ready for spa like social housing, the Londonderry Redevelopment will be sure to be a bright spot in the community.

Capital Region Housing Corporation includes 4,550 social housing units, with an additional 610 affordable housing units. This equals 5,160 units in Edmonton in total. Of these, there are 1, 679 units in 50 projects in the areas north of the Yellowhead, making up approximately 33% of the total amount of units in Edmonton. There are projects all around the city, and there are plans to regenerate projects in all areas of the city. Londonderry is one of the many that will be going through this process.

The Londonderry Redevelopment will not be a soup kitchen or an emergency shelter. It will be a high-quality, diverse and well-managed community. It will provide dignity and be a fiscally responsible decision on the path to eliminating poverty. It is both saving people and saving money.  Most importantly, it will be home to many Edmontonians, a home which is part of a great community.  Londonderry will continue to be a community to grow with and grow proud of.

The Londonderry Redevelopment is a first step in achieving the City’s goals of combatting homelessness. For this reason, the Londonderry Redevelopment project is going to be larger than the current social housing establishment. We are making the project larger so there are the same number of subsidized units as is currently available for households in need, while including units that are market priced. The only way to be able to provide the same number of subsidized units as is currently available when the subsidies from the federal government subside is by increasing the units available. By having a mixed tenant building, we are able to continue to provide social housing units without the federal subsidies, and there is money available to put in reserve to keep up with building maintenance.

Another benefit to having the mixed tenant model set up for social housing projects is that the model assists with the transition out of social housing. Having market and social units means when a tenant’s income increases they are gradually able to move into the market units within the same project without having to disrupt themselves and their families by moving to another neighbourhood. This not only provides added security for individuals, but allows them to be able to count on some stability. If individuals know that, when their income increases, they will not have to uproot themselves, and their children, and move to a new neighbourhood and start over, there is less fear of the unknown. They are more likely to become part of the community, and to invest in the community’s future. By knowing they can stay in a familiar, stable environment, there is more incentive to transition into market housing.

Something that is understandably on people’s minds is the impact that these projects will have on their property taxes. There is no expected budget increase as a result of the Londonderry project and as such there will be no impact on property taxes. By having a mixed tenant building the subsidized units can stay the same, and the building can be maintained without increasing property taxes. Having a mixed tenant building provides revenue to be able to build and maintain these units without increasing property taxes for Edmontonians. Mixed tenants allows for affordable units to be available for those living on a lower income, while still ensuring that property taxes do not increase for regular Edmonton citizens and while maintaining a positive addition to the surrounding community.

Another concern that city officials and representatives hear regarding infill projects is concerns about traffic increases and parking availability. Any new residential development is required to adhere to city zoning bylaws. This includes bylaws that outline requirements for creating sufficient parking for residents. If there are traffic concerns when more in-depth planning for the project begins, there will be traffic studies conducted to address these concerns.

Finally, as was stated above, there is no correlation between the provision of affordable housing units and increased crime in the area. There is a correlation between substandard housing and crime. For this reason, the regeneration projects are creating well designed, high quality, well managed projects that provide a safe environment to residents and the surrounding community. Rejuvenating the projects that are already in existence should have a positive effect on crime. If the projects are well maintained, studies have shown crime goes down. This is another reason to invest in these types of projects. However, as crime is something that is always on the minds of citizens, the CRHC has partnered with EPS to ensure the design specifications of the projects discourage crime. All tenants must sign an addendum to their lease that impacts their eligibility if they participate in any criminal activity. This acts as another incentive to comply with the laws.

The Londonderry project is an important step in achieving the city’s goal to end homelessness, and to taking care of our citizens. Having a safe, warm place to call home has been shown to increase productivity, reduce crime, and assist people in becoming more successful in other areas of their lives. These are all good things. The project will be an investment in people, an investment in the community, and an investment in our collective future as a city.

The Londonderry project website is now up and running.