Provincial reluctance putting federal housing cash at risk, Edmonton mayor says

·4 min read
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson is calling on the province to step up to help cities tap into federal funding for supportive-housing projects.  (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson is calling on the province to step up to help cities tap into federal funding for supportive-housing projects. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson confronted Alberta's minister of community and social services on Friday over her government's apparent reluctance to fund operations for five supportive-housing projects.

Rajan Sawhney was among a handful of provincial cabinet ministers taking questions from mayors and councillors during a dialogue session at the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) spring leaders' caucus.

Iveson, long an advocate of supportive housing for the homeless, told Sawhney millions of dollars from the federal government will be lost unless the province steps up to help.

"Let me ask again: Will you commit to funding the operating dollars so that we can go get more federal aid for vulnerable Albertans," Iveson said. "And if not, why not?"

Sawhney declined to make any commitments, saying that the province and the city were still working on the issue. While acknowledging that federal housing dollars were at stake, she urged municipal leaders to be patient.

"There is still a lot to work to be done as of yet to get to that point as to when a final decision will be made," she said.

"I do appreciate your passion and commitment to this cause. I'm right there with you on it, and I'm confident that we will come together to some solution in the near term."

Supportive housing provides on-site help with issues ranging from addictions to obtaining identification and gaining employment for people who are chronically homeless.

The support helps people adjust to their new lives and overcome the challenges that keep them from maintaining tenancy in more conventional housing units.

Edmonton and the federal government have committed $52.1 million toward the construction of five supportive-housing projects. Iveson said the province has been silent on the city's request for $5.9 million in operating funds.

"I don't know what the impasse is here," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"Giving a jurisdictional hot potato answer to that question is not particularly satisfying to someone who has been on the streets for years."

Ambrose Place, a project in the city's McCauley neighbourhood, is a model the city wishes to expand on.

Iveson said providing housing for people and giving them supports to keep them there saves money in the justice and the health-care systems.

He said he doesn't understand the disinterest from the Kenney government.

"I don't get it. I'm at a bit of a loss," Iveson said. "I'm going to keep asking very pointed questions about this until we get a better answer."

Iveson is worried the province's reluctance to chip in could cost Alberta municipalities millions of dollars in funding from Ottawa, especially with the federal budget coming on Monday.

He wants the federal government to either start funding housing agencies directly or start attaching conditions to compel provinces to spend money on projects that save the system money.

Sawhney's press secretary Rob Williams said the Alberta government allocated almost $29 million in February budget to help Homeward Trust with supportive housing and case management.

Ministers on the hot seat

Iveson's question to Sawhney wasn't the only sign of municipal unrest at the AUMA forum.

Alberta's municipalities are reeling from provincial cuts, including a 25 per reduction in infrastructure grants in the 2021 budget. Municipal governments are forbidden from running deficits by law, so they are forced to make additional cuts or raise taxes to balance the books.

Municipal officials also questioned cabinet about the costs of running a referendum in October's civic elections, the province's delay in implementing the Local Government Fiscal Framework Act and the millions of dollars oil and gas companies owe in unpaid property taxes.

Ric McIver, municipal affairs minister, handled most of the questions. He was asked what example the government is setting for municipalities tasked with enforcing public health regulations by allowing 18 MLAs to speak out against restrictions.

"The letter that was written doesn't represent government policy," McIver said. "Government policy is to follow the health regulations."

Environment and Parks Minster Jason Nixon was taken to task for the terms of reference for the energy ministry's new coal policy consultation, which put discussions about the impact of mining on water and land out of scope.

In response, Nixon said no one was discouraging these discussions, only that the 1976 Coal Policy, which was recently reinstated after it was repealed last year, "had nothing ever to do with water."

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Health Minister Tyler Shandro usually participate in the AUMA discussions but did not attend on Friday.