Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard acknowledges the province's plan to create 151 affordable housing units in the first three years of a new housing agreement with Ottawa doesn't sound like much, given the 500 people who are currently homeless and the more than 5,000 households on the waiting list for affordable housing.
But she says the decision was made to put more money toward repairs and renovations of existing affordable units as quickly as possible.
"We have many, many units that are out of service because they can't be renovated under the current budget. So it was really important to put money in the budget to not only maintain what we have … but we also have units that are in enough disrepair from damage that we can't utilize them," she said.
"So we need to maximize our opportunities to get every single unit available for housing."
The province will spend $629,000 on building the new housing units, compared to more than $12 million on upgrades over the next three years — $7.2 million on public housing and $4.9 million on non-profit housing.
Department officials could not immediately say how many units are in such disrepair that they can't be used, or how many will become available through the upgrades, but Shephard said there are "many" in the northern part of the province and the Saint John region.
"So it's a constant struggle to keep up with it all."
Back-end loaded agreement
Earlier this year, the province signed a $299.2 million, 10-year agreement with the federal government under the National Housing Strategy.
The 2019-2022 New Brunswick Action Plan calls for an average of 50 new affordable housing units to be built in each of the first three years — a mixture of NB Housing and private units with housing agreements — across the province.
Shephard said that's about 10 more per year than the previous plan and was negotiated in consultation with stakeholders, clients and other departments.
An additional 1,111 units are expected to be created in the final seven years.
Meanwhile, to help address homelessness this year, the department spent $2 million on extra emergency shelter beds in Moncton and Fredericton, but cut about 65 to 70 rent supplements, Shepard confirmed.
It's "unfortunate," but necessary, she said.
"When you have 500 people living on the street, you have to try to provide them with enough resources to at least keep them safe."
The cuts to rent supplements is temporary, according to the minister. She expects the agreements with private landlords to subsidize units and make them available to people in need will be restored in the next budget.
"We have to work within our means and we're doing more than we've done before. So we need to make gains wherever we can. And when the opportunities arise, we need to maximize those opportunities."
Proposed developer bylaw worth discussing
Asked about Montreal's proposed bylaw that will compel developers to build a certain number of affordable and social housing units, or contribute to a fund that will finance social housing, Shephard called the idea "interesting."
She said the majority of affordable housing units in New Brunswick are already built by the private sector with the government's help to make a certain percentage of them subsidized units.
"But I think it's interesting that we could put that into policy and I think with the help of our municipalities that it's worthy of looking at."
She said the municipalities have been quite willing to be at the table to discuss the homelessness issue.
"So I think that they would welcome the conversation," said Shephard.
"Once we explore, you know, the pros and the cons of it, I'm not sure where it will come out, but I think it's worthy of a discussion."
She is willing to commit to that discussion — or anything else that could benefit the housing strategy, she added.
The bylaw was adopted by Montreal's executive committee in June and is going through public consultations now, said Coun. Craig Sauvé, the councillor responsible for housing.
"We think that in one year of signing this bylaw we'll be able to create 600 units of social housing and other several hundred units of affordable under-market housing and family housing," he said. "That's just from this bylaw alone. So it's a pretty powerful tool and a lot of people are very excited about it in Montreal."
Other jurisdictions are excited about it too, according to Sauvé. Neighbouring municipalities are considering adopting it, he said, and he's been fielding calls from officials across Canada, asking for details.
The bylaw is complex, said Sauvé, but it makes it more expensive for developers to do the pay-out option, so they're more likely to build some turn-key affordable housing units.
That's the "best possible scenario" for the city because it avoids the headache of dealing with a construction project and delivers the units to citizens in need sooner.
It's often referred to as the 20-20-20 bylaw, said Sauvé, because it calls for 20 per cent non-profit housing, 20 per cent affordable sub-market housing and 20 per cent "family housing," which means three bedrooms or more to create more housing stock for families to live within the city core.
The initiative comes amid a housing crunch in Montreal.
The rental market has become increasingly competitive, due to increased demand and rising real estate prices, leaving low-income families especially vulnerable.
Sauvé said the bylaw may not be a so-called magic bullet to solve homelessness, but he does believe it's a "piece of the puzzle."
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante wants the bylaw, which still needs to be approved by council, to be in effect by Jan. 1, 2021.