No silver bullet can solve St. Albert's affordable housing problem, but recent discussions at city hall risk damaging one of the few solutions currently in place.
For many years, one of the forms of housing support in St. Albert has come through the St. Albert Housing Society. Numbers provided by housing society chair Cheryl Dumont show a total municipal investment of $1.1 million since 2008 for the society's operations. The city also kicked in $2.4 million in land for the project. On the capital side of the equation, the housing society has purchased a total of 27 affordable housing units – units that need maintenance and management. But as our current council reviews its approach to affordable housing, the society has seen its operational funding from the city dwindle. Now, councillors are moving in the direction of eliminating operating funding altogether and moving to a capital-only funding model.
Over the past two years, councillors have made decisions to try to increase the transparency of their grant process and address any perceived duplication of funding. Unfortunately, in the process, many organizations including the housing society have seen their funding slashed. The society was also dealt a blow last year when the deadline to reach a deal with the city expired before an agreement could be reached.
What is the extent of the city's role or obligation in providing affordable housing support, and is it poor policy for the city's housing supports to overlap with supports from other levels of government? Do the needs of people who can't afford traditional housing tip the scale when weighing the costs and benefits of organizations like the housing society? These are difficult conversations to have because of the potential impact on vulnerable people who need access to safe, affordable housing. But they are vital conversations to have in order to develop sound affordable housing policy.
The housing society's share of St. Albert's 475 affordable housing units is relatively small, but every one counts when the need – according to Dumont – is nearly 10 times the number of units that exist today. It should also be noted St. Albert has a number of other organizations working toward the goal of affordable housing. Homeland Housing is the largest of these, operating 230 units, and is also the provincially legislated housing management body in our area, providing affordable seniors’ housing. St. Albert is also home to two housing co-operatives, self-managed by residents and developed through a federal housing program. As for non-profits, we have Transitions and LoSeCa, both of which operate housing services for their clients, and the housing society. Thus it falls to council to decide what to fund and where the city's dollars have the most impact.
Building a strategy for how to fund affordable housing is no easy feat. Municipalities everywhere struggle with this. The housing society has demonstrated its commitment to offer affordable housing, and every city councillor has shown their support for affordable housing. With common interest, the two sides should be able to put together an agreement that works.