By any conventional measures, the Alberta economy is on fire. The unemployment rate is the lowest in Canada, and the annual increase in gross domestic product is the highest. Taxes are the lowest in the country. A rising tide lifts all boats.
So, why is it that the affordable housing crisis and homelessness is so bad in this, the best of all provincial economies? A few weeks ago, when I was meeting with Halifax’s Community Action on Homelessness, politicians blamed the housing problems there on a bad economy. This past summer, retiring Alberta Premier Ralph Klein blamed the housing problems in his province on the extraordinarily good economy. In other words, all that oil which has been building up for hundreds of millions of years – which is the core of Alberta’s boom – is causing the housing problems here and there’s nothing that any ordinary mortals can do about it.
I’m in Edmonton for a joint conference of the Alberta Housing Coalition and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association. When I arrived yesterday, the Edmonton homelessness committee released their latest official homeless count – which shows homelessness is up more than 300% in recent years.
Just two days ago, Premier Klein made this startling comment: “The struggles of the homeless and the working poor in places like Calgary and Fort McMurray is unfortunately more of a challenge today then ever. It’s a great concern to see that half of Calgarians that are homeless right now have a job, but are simply not making enough money to afford appropriate accommodation.”
Homelessness and the underlying affordable housing crisis may have caught the Premier by surprise, but it’s not the fault of the long dead dinosaurs. During the 1990s (the first decade of Premier Klein’s tenure) his government cut provincial housing spending by 167% – the biggest slash in all of Canada. In fact, in 2006, Premier Klein’s government spends less on housing than his government did in 1993. And more cuts are planned in the next couple of years, according to provincial targets.
When governments slash housing funding and download programs, as the federal and Alberta governments did during the 1990s, then it’s no surprise that there is a province-wide affordable housing crisis in 2006.
The good news is that in almost every part of Alberta, as in most parts of Canada, there are smart and committed housing advocates and municipal politicians who are rolling up their shirt sleeves and working on practical solutions. Just as the Wellesley Institute’s Blueprint to End Homelessness is a cost-effective strategy to “upload” housing back to the provincial and federal levels, where it belongs, other communities are planning to adopt the model.