Peel region asks Ottawa to change affordable housing program over tight deadlines

·3 min read

Peel region voted Thursday to ask Ottawa to change its billion-dollar affordable housing program, with one councillor saying the federal initiative’s aggressive deadlines and rules will leave municipalities struggling to book busy contractors, get needed supplies and hear the public’s input on new developments.

The program, called the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI), was announced last fall. It was meant to quickly scale up affordable housing, funding modular construction projects and acquiring land or existing properties for conversions, to create up to 3,000 units of housing for the chronically homeless and other vulnerable populations.

Some money was allocated directly to municipalities — Peel received a $30.4-million cut and Toronto $203 million — and some was to be doled out by application. All projects were expected to be approved by March 31 and were expected to be completed within a year, with some exceptions for remote areas.

But a resolution endorsed Thursday by Peel’s regional council says the program’s aggressive completion timelines, requirement to use modular builds and eligibility limits have created “unnecessary risks” for municipalities, and may make those projects more expensive than they might be otherwise.

“We’re very grateful for the funding that the federal government is providing to us, however, we’re not able to meet those timelines and those deadlines. And we don’t want to lose that funding, because we certainly need it,” said Coun. Annette Groves, of Caledon, in an interview.

Groves, who moved the motion, pointed to hurdles like contractors being unavailable on tight timelines, difficulty getting supplies and the public input aspect of creating new developments getting in the way of a one-year turnaround.

“While we’re doing everything we can get through that process quickly, we still have to respect the public’s side of it,” Groves said. She saw it as unlikely that any projects were ready in 2021.

Janice Sheehy, Peel’s commissioner of human services, said in Thursday’s meeting that for smaller affordable housing projects, using modular construction technology “just simply doesn’t make sense.”

In Toronto, meanwhile, city councillor Ana Bailao — who serves as the mayor’s affordable housing advocate — says it’s been somewhat easier to meet the rapid timelines, because the city had already been working on projects like modular housing developments before the federal initiative was announced.

“But in the future, it is important to give us a bit more time,” she noted.

Bailao would also like to see the criteria expanded, should the program continue, to allow Toronto to acquire and preserve rooming houses where they’re legally allowed.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, too, has asked the feds in the lead-up to their next budget to let housing providers acquire “low-rent market rental properties” to preserve them as affordable homes — while pressing for the RHI funding to be boosted to $7 billion.

Asked about the concerns raised by Peel council, a spokesperson for Families, Children and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen pointed to other programs like the National Housing Co-Investment Fund that allowed longer completion timelines.

The feds were exploring the possibility of increasing RHI funds, spokesperson Mikaela Harrison confirmed, but wouldn’t have an answer until “late spring.”

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star