As Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan rises in the Ontario Legislature today (Tuesday, March 25, 2008) to deliver the 2008/09 provincial Budget, here are five key questions from the Wellesley Institute on housing and homelessness issues:
ONE: Will Minister Duncan commit the funds to close Ontario’s billion-dollar housing deficit? In 2001, the Ontario government signed the Affordable Housing Framework Agreement with the federal government and all the other provinces and territories. Under this deal, Ontario agreed to increase provincial housing spending by $352 million, but actual provincial housing spending has actually dropped by $731 million, according to Statistics Canada. This has created a billion-dollar housing deficit. The huge gap between the promise of increased funding and the reality of funding cuts is one major reason why the province has failed to deliver the 20,000 new affordable homes that were supposed to delivered under the 2001 agreement. As of February of 2008, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing says that it has developed 7,234 new affordable homes. It says another 3,719 are under development. Ontario hasn’t released any details so we don’t know the rents / ownership costs of these new homes and cannot assess whether they are truly affordable to low and moderate-income households. The Wellesley Institute’s National Housing Report Card of February, 2008, notes that Ontario has the worst housing spending record of any province or territory.
TWO: Will Minister Duncan ensure that the $150 million or more in unspent federal housing funds are allocated before the funding expires this fiscal year? Parliament authorized $1.6 billion in affordable housing funding in 2005, and the federal government in 2006 assigned $312.3 million to Ontario for an affordable housing trust fund, and an addition $80.2 million for an off-reserve Aboriginal affordable housing trust fund. The 2007 Ontario budget announced plans for this spending, but as much as half, or more, of the dollars remain uncommitted. The single biggest spending envelope for the affordable housing trust fund was a housing allowance program that was supposed to benefit 27,000 households and cost $185 million. It is estimated that only half the funding has been committed. Not one penny of the Aboriginal funding has been committed, and it is estimated that as much as $80 million of the other fund remains unspent. If the money is not committed by the end of fiscal 2008, then it will revert back to the federal government.
THREE: Will Minister Duncan complete the uploading of the cost of social housing programs back to the provincial level? In the 2007 budget, the Ontario government uploaded housing and other costs from the 905 municipalities to the provincial level, but left Toronto and the rest of the province to continue paying the costs for programs that properly belongs at the provincial level. In recent days, the provincial government has announced a $100 million capital repair fund for social housing and a $500 million loan program. There are reports that as much as $300 million in additional repair funding may be announced in the Budget or soon after. All this is an important down payment on the billion-dollar-plus province-wide capital repair bill for former public housing projects, but it is only one part of the huge financial burden that the province downloaded on municipalities starting in 1998. Municipalities may be well-placed to take on the administration of housing programs, but they cannot the financial costs – which properly belong at the provincial level.
FOUR: Will Minister Duncan ensure that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and other provincial ministries, have the capacity to fund and deliver critical housing and homelessness programs? The 2007 Ontario Budget reported spending cuts for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in 2006 and again in 2007. Some experts have suggested that the difficulties in delivering housing programs at the provincial level (including the housing allowance, Aboriginal trust fund, affordable housing and other initiatives) is related to the limited capacity within the Ministry to develop and effectively administer programs. The Ministry was gutted in the 1990s to suit the political interests of the government of the day. Housing programs were fractured as they were downloaded to municipal service managers. Supportive housing – which provides a home with special physical and / or mental health supports – was transferred to the Ministry of Health. Recently, supportive housing programs have been downloaded by the Ministry to the Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs). LHINs, like municipal housing service managers, may be effective administrators at the local level, but they need the funding and program support from the province.
FIVE: Will Minister Duncan use the 2008 Ontario Budget to make a major down-payment on a comprehensive Poverty Reduction Strategy, as promised in the government’s last Speech from the Throne? Housing insecurity and homelessness are critical health issues, leading to increased illness and premature death. The links between poverty and poor health are recognized by the World Health Organization at the international level, and confirmed by countless research reports, including research funded by the Wellesley Institute. Some politicians, including federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, have called on Ontario to make additional corporate tax cuts in the hope that the benefits of these cuts will somehow trickle down to benefit those who are suffering from poverty, poor housing and poor health. But corporate tax cuts don’t create the social investments in housing, health, education and other fundamental determinants of health. While it make take the Ontario government a number of months to fully develop its Poverty Reduction Strategy, the 2008 Ontario Budget is an excellent place to start with a significant down-payment in the form of increased investments in housing and other fundamental determinants of health.