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TERRENCE MCEACHERN: How best to interpret this line in provincial budget supplement?

A line in the provincial budget supplement needs to be clarified about housing
A line in the provincial budget supplement needs to be clarified about housing - Submitted

Up to 1,000 new low-income housing units.

How do you interpret that phrase that appeared in large, bold letters in a supplement to this year’s provincial budget? 

Does it mean that up to 1,000 new low-income housing units are going to be constructed?

At first glance, it certainly looks that way.

But given other pieces of the puzzle – rent supplements and money for renovating existing units – suddenly the idea of 1,000 new low-income housing units built from scratch on top of those other initiatives doesn’t quite fit, nor does the $17 million over two years expected to pay for it all. Those were a couple of confusions pointed out to me on budget day by Mary Boyd of the MacKillop Centre for Social Justice. 

Rather than write an article that day saying that the plan was confusing, I waited a few days and spoke with Sonya Cobb, director of housing services with the province, for some clarifications.

She said that, in fact, the $17 million (including $7.2 million in federal money) is for all three initiatives – new affordable housing unit construction, rent supplements for people living in suitable (but too expensive) private accommodations and maintaining and renovating existing units. The budget supplement adds that the funding will be used to “reduce chronic homelessness.”

It doesn’t mean creating a total of 1,000 new units over the next two years in addition to funding renovations and rent supports, Cobb explains. They’re all part of the idea of up to 1,000 new low-income units.

Things start to become clearer when Cobb refers to rent supplements as creating newly affordable units. 

Here again, when I hear “new low-income housing units,” I’m under the impression that this means newly constructed units. Maybe I’m alone on this. 

But it looks like “new” can also mean newly created affordable units through rent supplements and, I suspect, newly renovated units. Now, the language is making more sense. 

Perhaps a better way to read that phrase is $17 million to help up to 1,000 households with their core housing needs. 

This is, in fact, suggested in the second phrase (in smaller print) in the budget supplement. It probably should have been on top.

In any event, it’s fair to ask how many newly constructed low-income housing units we can expect to see with this funding?

Cobb said the province will know more once the Housing Action Plan is completed this summer. 

She adds that the plan for up to 1,000 new low-income units is over four years even though the $17 million highlighted in the budget is over two years.

Regardless, for now we know that the federal money is funding the building of 50 new seniors units (30 in Charlottetown and 20 in Summerside) and 10 transitional housing units, six for victims of family violence and four for youth aging out of the child protection system.

And, just to be clear, this isn’t meant to criticize the government’s plans to help low-income households. 

Spending $17 million of federal and provincial money to help Islanders live more affordably is a good thing. 

But the point is that language does matter and needs to be clarified, especially when we’re talking about how taxpayer’s dollars are going to be spent. 

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