Clifford Lee faces a daunting challenge as he takes on the position of P.E.I.’s affordable housing chief. The four-term mayor of Charlottetown will become the special adviser of the province’s housing hub, a key component of the government’s newly-announced housing action plan. The role will see him offer support to a cabinet committee on housing, oversee government staff from several departments, co-ordinate with housing groups and developers, study housing options for vulnerable individuals and help to implement the housing plan.
His appointment doesn’t come as a big surprise as it was widely speculated the mayor probably had other career options in mind when he announced in early April that he wouldn’t seek a fifth term as mayor in November’s municipal elections. At age 56, Mayor Lee said he still has some good years ahead of him and he wanted a new challenge after serving the capital as councillor and mayor for a generation.
Mayor Lee has long advocated for affordable housing, low income and seniors housing in the city. He has long criticized government about its lack of action in those areas – which have become more acute in recent years. Increased pressure from thousands of newcomers have sent housing prices soaring, while the cost of renting has pushed accommodations out of reach for students and stretched the budgets of low to middle income families. As an example, 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. There is urgency for action.
The mayor has also been criticized for the city’s lack of action on the housing file because much of the current crisis developed on his watch. While Charlottetown has held public housing forums, voiced concerns over affordable housing and made housing an election issue, the city has struggled to do much about the problem.
Mayor Lee had a good excuse – lack of funding. The city must operate under a balanced budget and the dollars simply were not there for any major housing plans. But the city also opted to spend most available infrastructure dollars on streets, water and sewer projects over housing initiatives.
The city didn’t just sit on its hands. Shortly after revealing he wasn’t re-offering, Mayor Lee announced that the city would address the issue of affordable housing for youth. This came immediately after the city’s youth retention advisory board released the disturbing findings of a survey it did earlier this year on affordable housing.
Charlottetown had a long feud with the province over its municipal funding and grants formula - which only got settled last year in the city’s favour. That equitable deal, plus added federal and provincial infrastructure dollars, appears to have softened the mayor’s view of the premier and provincial government as the two levels of government have made peace.
The province obviously thinks Mr. Lee is the man to implement its housing strategy. And Mayor Lee believes the province is sincere in its commitment to housing, saying the government realizes that Band-Aids aren’t going to fix this problem. He has a four-year contract to solve immediate housing issues and develop a long-term strategy. After that, he’s still a youthful 60, and who knows what possibilities or challenges might be ahead?
As the race to succeed Mayor Lee heats up, at least two mayoral candidates – Philip Brown and Kim Devine – have made affordable housing one of their top priorities. They are sure to add to Mayor Lee’s to-do list.
Mayor Lee now has a chance to put his housing solutions and forum feedback into action. He knows the issues and challenges. His experience with the federation of municipalities has made him aware the housing problem extends across the province.
It’s up to Mr. Lee to deliver and put those promises and words into action – and the sooner the better.