Housing strategy doesn't have clear actions: auditor general

New Brunswick's auditor general wants improvements to the Progressive Conservatives' housing strategy that's already come under scathing criticism from social groups and opposition parties.

As one of several performance audits released last week, Paul Martin said the strategy, released on June 29 last year, had shortcomings.

He said the 10-year plan's targets were easy to understand, but he couldn't figure out what actions would help the province end the housing crisis.

"I felt the housing review was a great opportunity to get at the government at the ground floor, with a strategy they've started at right out of the gate, with a very important topic, given the price of housing, the homelessness and the need to address this," Martin told reporters at a press conference at the legislature.

He noted that the New Brunswick Housing Corporation had already done some good work coming up with a strategy to improve the desperate situation.

"But they need to do a little better and then we'll be able to assess their performance and their reporting on it."

Public performance reporting mechanisms, he said, had not been established and there had been no public reporting on the achievement of the strategy's four main targets.

He also said his audit team estimated the strategy would cost more than $1 billion to carry out, but so far only a little over half of that has been accounted for.

Housing minister Jill Green released the strategy last year as rents soared and the number of available apartments dried up.

Critics, however, have slammed the strategy for not including a rent cap that would stop steep rises.

They also want to see the government cancel the provincial portion of sales tax on housing construction.

Green has countered that rent caps would scare away developers, whereas across-the-board tax relief wouldn't guarantee landlords would pass along the savings to tenants.

Liberal opposition MLA Richard Losier said the auditor general's findings didn't surprise him.

"Even the six-month report the government issued was weak," Losier told reporters. "It didn't say a whole lot. As a New Brunswicker, you look at that, and say, 'is this moving forward or it stagnant?'And based on the numbers we've seen, in other places in the Maritimes, they are outshining us by a mile."

While housing starts have set a record so far this year, the pace of housing construction in neighbouring Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, relative to their population size, has moved at an even faster clip. Both of those provinces have rent caps and sales tax forgiveness on new housing.

Green told reporters afterward the Progressive Conservative government took the auditor general's findings seriously.

"It's all hands-on deck and everyone is truly rowing in the same direction, trying to provide more affordable housing to New Brunswickers," the minister said. "We're seeing our housing starts go completely off the charts, numbers we haven't seen since 1948 when we started tracking them. So very good things are happening, but that's not saying that we don't have more work to do."

Martin said the goal of the audit was to ensure the strategy was clear, transparent, and included adequate measurement and reporting mechanisms.

For the most part, he found the goals easy to understand.

For instance, it states that the government wants to see an increase in housing starts, with 6,000 a year; reduce the percentage of households spending more than 30 per cent of income on shelter costs to less than 15 per cent; create conditions to hold annual rent increases at an average of 2.5 per cent and the percentage change in average home prices to 4.8 per cent; and decrease the number of households in need of subsidized housing to 7,500 by 2026 from the current waitlist of more than 11,000.

But Martin noted that the government's strategy did not document what actions were clearly linked to those targets.

"There are improvements required for transparency," he said. "At the time of our audit, the New Brunswick Housing Corporation had not established a reporting plan."

Green party opposition critic Megan Mitton said the province would struggle to hit its goals.

"A rent cap would be a very clear, efficient way of reaching that 2.5 per cent rent increase target right away," she said.

Green said the Crown corporation would improve its public reporting and incorporate the auditor general's recommendations when it does a one-year review of the strategy.

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner