City prepares roadmap to address scaling housing affordability issues

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City officials say Edmonton needs “significant” additions to affordable and supportive housing stock amid preparations to adjust the city’s approach in the wake of COVID-19.

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The number of people experiencing houselessness in the city has doubled since pre-pandemic days. While city staff council toldlors Monday that positive strides have been made toward, there are major issues to tackle as more Edmonton households struggle to afford housing.

The city is projecting that it will surpass its targets of 600 supportive housing units and 2,500 new or renovated affordable housing units between 2019 and the end of 2022. By the end of the year, 740 “deep subsidy” units — the vast majority supportive housing — are projected to be completed.

But at the same time, according to a city presentation, nearly 50,000 Edmonton households are in core housing need — meaning they can’t afford something on less than 30 per cent of their pre-tax income that has enough space and no need for major repairs. Renters especially, feel the pressure, with one in four experiencing those issues.

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At the same time, around 3,000 people in Edmonton are living in houselessness, including people in shelters or sleeping rough, as well as others who may be “couch surfing” but don’t have a permanent place to live. Indigenous people are especially overrepresented in the city’s homeless population, and city staff want to put a greater emphasis on Indigenous-led housing projects.

City council’s community and public services committee spent Monday afternoon discussing the scope of current housing needs, including the possibility of adding supportive housing units onto a new fire station in Edmonton’s southeast.

The Walker fire station was approved in a previous capital budget and, if council gives the go-ahead to expand the scope to include housing too, an additional budget request would come through by 2024.

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The committee didn’t vote on the idea by the end of the day Monday, but councilors are expected to make a decision when the meeting continues Tuesday. A similar development exists in Calgary, and Monday’s committee heard there’s a benefit to combining city resources in a single project.

More than 80 per cent of Edmonton’s affordable housing stock was built before 1990, and most of those units are suites or one-bedroom apartments. Roughly one-third of the units are in poor or fair condition.

Susan McGee, the CEO of housing agency Homeward Trust, said now is a critical time to take account of the city’s increasing needs and keep moving toward solutions.

“The average Edmontonian, I think, sees the increase in homelessness and is certainly frustrated — feeling like we’ve made progress, and where are we now?” she said.

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“It is going to take resources and it is going to take really, really good planning. … I’m very optimistic about the future. But I empathize, and I see, certainly, in our city, we’re really struggling with the increases in homelessness and looking for new solutions.”

She added that one important piece is appropriate services for people who require deep subsidies and additional supports to stay married.

“We’ve seen in the past where there’s affordable housing projects or programs that have targets that are in the tens of thousands, but they sprinkle a little bit of resources among many projects,” she said.

“We might get some units for a little while, but we don’t get the number of units we need, sustainably, for those folks that are really in need of a deep subsidy solution.”

—With files from Lauren Boothboy

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