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EXCLUSIVE: Clifford Lee to lead charge on housing in P.E.I.

Clifford Lee, shown in this April 11, 2018 photo, has been mayor of Charlottetown since 2003, making him the longest serving mayor in Charlottetown history.
Clifford Lee, shown in this April 11, 2018 photo, has accepted a position as P.E.I.’s affordable housing chief. - Dave Stewart

Charlottetown’s mayor has accepted a position as P.E.I.’s affordable housing chief.

Clifford Lee will be taking a job with the province as the special adviser of the province’s housing hub, the Ministry of Finance confirmed on Monday. The housing hub will be one component of the government’s housing action plan. The role will see Lee offering support to a cabinet committee on housing, which will be chaired by Finance Minister Heath MacDonald. Lee will oversee government staff from several departments as part of his role.

Lee has served as mayor of Charlottetown for 15 years and has worked closely with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. He will not be running in the fall’s municipal election.

In the past Lee has been an outspoken critic of the lack of commitment to affordable and rent-geared-to-income housing from past and current provincial and federal governments.

In an interview with Guardian reporter Teresa Wright in June of 2017, Lee described the strategy of “deferring to private property developers” in matters of housing policy as a “failure of successive governments.”

But on Tuesday, Lee said he believed the province was sincere in its commitment to housing.

"I honestly believe the government has come to the realization that band-aids aren't going to fix this problem,” Lee said in a phone interview. “There has to be a long-term plan but immediately there has to be a short-term plan on how we deal with the immediate problems out there."

Lee’s tenure will be a four-year contract position under the Ministry of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy with a salary range “comparable to the Director level,” according to a statement released by the Department of Finance. Salaries for directors in the Ministry of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy range between $82,610 and $114,389.

The ministry did not clarify whether Lee was chosen for the position after a public competition.

Lee’s role, as head of the housing hub, will be to liaise with housing groups and developers, study housing options for vulnerable individuals and help to implement the housing plan.

The province released its housing action plan last week. The provincial plan, which incorporates a number of federal and provincial affordable housing programs, would see the creation of 1,000 affordable housing units over four years. The plan aims to create these units through a combination of construction of new units and rent supplements for low-income individuals. Under the plan, 275 of these affordable housing units would be created this year.

The province has seen its supply of affordable housing, particularly in the rental market, under increasing strain due to population growth. Charlottetown has seen its vacancy rate drop below one per cent, while rent has risen by 13.7 per cent in the last four years.

Critics of the housing plan have suggested that it does not focus enough on addressing the immediate shortage of housing in the province.

Lee said he believed the province’s plan would provide a significant step forward in offering affordable housing options.

"I understand and appreciate people saying it's another announcement and nothing's going to come out of it at the end of the day,” Lee said. “If I honestly thought that was the case, I wouldn't be in the role I am."

When asked whether he secured the position through an open, public competition, Lee referred The Guardian to the Ministry of Finance.

"That's probably a question you would have to ask government because they made the appointment," he said. "Quite honestly, to me the story is about housing. That's what I'm concentrating on."

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