Sask. groups welcome affordable housing funding

By Betty Ann Adam, The StarPhoenix

March 22, 2013 - The federal government's plan to maintain funding for affordable housing over the next five years is welcome news in Saskatoon.

"There was a lot of uncertainty around what was going to be the federal government's role and commitment to affordable housing ... It is encouraging," said Len Usiskin, manager of Quint Development Corp, which organizes projects to help low-income people access quality housing in the city's core neighbourhoods.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's spring budget commits Ottawa to five more years of funding through the Investment in Affordable Housing program.

The amount is the same as in the past: $253 million a year over five years, which needs to be matched by the provinces and territories and can be spent on new construction, renovation, home ownership assistance, rent supplements, shelters and homes for battered spouses.

"It's good to see that they're continuing on, but costs to do housing have gone up exponentially, so the same level of funding as in the past won't generate the same number of units of housing that it did in the past," Usiskin said.

The announcement takes affect in April 2014, giving the province time to prepare for it in the next budget, said Don Allen, president of Saskatchewan Housing Corp.

"We're pretty pleased with the existing agreement we have with the federal government. The province is able to decide what our areas of priority are, our areas of greatest need," he said.

Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison said the city needs to revisit its existing programs and set new targets.

Civic administrators aim for development of 500 affordable housing units per year through a series of developer incentives, mortgage support, and down payment and property tax abatement programs.

"We can't just rest on our laurels," Atchison said.

The budget also confirms Ottawa's role in homelessness programming, with a new focus on "housing first," the strategy already underway in Saskatoon.

The budget commits to five more years of funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, with funding levels lower than the previous commitment, coming in at $119 million a year instead of $134.8 million a year.

Sheri Benson, executive director of the United Way of Saskatoon and area, was excited to hear of the federal government's endorsement for the approach that pays or subsidizes homes for the homeless - no questions asked - and then follows up with a barrage of social services designed to keep recipients in their homes and build up their autonomy.

"The timing for us is perfect. We're most excited about the emphasis on housing first, getting people into safe, affordable housing and bringing support services around them so people can stay housed," she said.

Community groups, including the health region, police, fire department, shelters and social services have already begun measuring the problem in Saskatoon and planning to implement a housing first strategy.

In the past, much of the homelessness funding went toward shelters or dealing with addictions and other problems before recipients were helped to find permanent homes.

But the federal government paid for the world's largest study on "housing first" to see whether it would be more effective in helping homeless people with mental illness and at the same time save governments money, especially for emergency services. The results were promising, and will now form the basis of federal policy.

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