Majority of affordable homes approved under federal program not yet constructed
By Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa
The federal government has set aside billions of dollars to quickly build affordable housing across the country, but delays in construction suggest many of the projects approved for funding are missing their deadlines.
The Rapid Housing Initiative is a federal program launched in 2020 that provides funding to cities and non-profit organizations to build affordable homes for vulnerable Canadians, including those experiencing homelessness.
The federal government offered $2.5 billion during the first two rounds of project funding, with the condition that approved units must be built within 12 months in most places or 18 months in northern or remote communities.
But a document put together by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. in response to a written question from a member of Parliament shows the majority of units approved have not yet been constructed.
The first round of applications closed at the end of March 2021 and resulted in 4,792 units approved for funding, while a further 5,473 got the green light during the second round that closed a year later.
The response from CMHC, which is dated Nov. 30, says only 1,449 units have been completed
Neither CMHC nor Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office would say how many projects missed the 12- or 18-month deadlines. A CMHC spokesperson, however, acknowledged some projects have been delayed.
“Due to unprecedented circumstances faced by housing developers over the last few years including supply chain disruptions, rising costs and severe weather-related events, some projects are expected to and will take longer, mainly due to infrastructure and construction challenges,” said Leonard Catling.
Carolyn Whitzman, a housing policy expert and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, says the federal government has touted the Rapid Housing Initiative as a success story because more units than anticipated have been approved for construction. The first two rounds of approvals exceeded targets by a combined 2,600 units, she noted.
But Whitzman says there are several obstacles hampering many affordable housing projects, including pushback from residents and a lack of support from provincial governments.
“In order to get supportive housing through rapid housing initiative or any other program up, you need really strong collaboration between all three levels of government,” Whitzman said.
She says housing construction has also been affected by rising costs and labour shortages.
In November, the federal government announced the third round of the program, which will provide an additional $1.5 billion in funding.
The federal government has extended the construction timeline for that round to 18 months for most homes and 24 months for projects in northern or remote communities.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government made affordable housing a cornerstone of its agenda to support and expand the middle class. It announced its national housing strategy in 2017, which is a 10-year plan that pours tens of billions of dollars into affordable housing
But the Liberals have faced criticism for the execution of its plans.
In a report published in November, auditor general Karen Hogan found the government was not tracking its progress on reducing chronic homelessness, despite a stated goal of reducing such conditions by 50 per cent by 2028.
Hogan’s report found there are data gaps across the federal government that make it difficult to assess the success of programs.
CMHC, in its capacity as leader of the national housing strategy, has spent $4.5 billion since 2018. But the report found the corporation doesn’t know who is benefiting from its programs.
Whitzman said failure to track program success can lead to public distrust and raise skepticism about whether problems like housing affordability can even be addressed by the federal government.
“If you’re gonna put billions of dollars into a program, you’ve got to track the effectiveness,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2023.
Canada argues court misconstrued Charter in directing feds to bring men in Syria home
A general view of Karama camp for internally displaced Syrians, is shown Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, by the village of Atma, Idlib province, Syria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Omar Albam
By Jim Bronskill in Ottawa
The Canadian government says a federal judge misinterpreted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in directing officials to secure the release of four men from detention in northeastern Syria.
Government lawyers are set to stress that point in the Federal Court of Appeal today as they seek to overturn a January ruling by Federal Court Justice Henry Brown.
In his decision, Brown said Ottawa should request repatriation of the men in Syrian prisons run by Kurdish forces as soon as reasonably possible and provide them with passports or emergency travel documents.
Brown ruled the men are also entitled to have a representative of the federal government travel to Syria to help facilitate their release once their captors agree to hand them over.
The government says in written arguments filed in the Court of Appeal that Brown mistakenly conflated the recognized Charter right of citizens to enter Canada with a right to return — effectively creating a new right for citizens to be brought home by the Canadian government.
Federal lawyers argue Brown’s “novel and expansive” approach overshoots the text, purpose and protected interests of the Charter right to enter, and is inconsistent with established domestic and international law.
The government also contends the court usurped the role of the executive over matters of foreign policy and passports. “The mandatory actions fail to respect the proper role of the executive and prevent it from making necessary, timely and individualized assessments within its expertise about a range of complex considerations.”
The judge’s ruling has largely been put on hold while the appeal plays out. However, Ottawa must still get the process started by initiating contact with the Kurdish forces who are detaining the men in a region reclaimed from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The four men include Jack Letts, whose parents John Letts and Sally Lane have waged a vigorous campaign to pressure Ottawa to come to his aid.
Lawyer Barbara Jackman, who represents Letts, points out in a submission to the Court of Appeal that the four Canadian men have not been charged with any crime.
“They have not had access to the necessities of life and have been subjected to degrading, cruel and unusual treatment during their nightmarish tenure in Syrian prisons,” the filing says. “Jack Letts told his family and the Canadian government that he was subjected to torture and contemplated ending his own life.”
The identities of the three other Canadian men are not publicly known.
Their lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, says Brown’s ruling that Canada should take steps to facilitate repatriation of the men is a practical solution that recognizes the Charter-entrenched right of entry.
“Justice Brown’s decision is comprehensive and correct in law,” Greenspon’s written submission to the Court of Appeal says.
In these rare circumstances, where Canadians are being arbitrarily detained in a foreign country and the federal government has been invited to take steps to facilitate their entry into Canada, the court correctly declared that Ottawa should take those steps, the filing adds.
Family members of the men, as well as several women and children, argued in the Federal Court proceedings that Global Affairs Canada must arrange for their return, saying that refusing to do so violates the Charter.
The government insisted that the Charter does not obligate Ottawa to repatriate the Canadians held in Syria.
However, Greenspon reached an agreement with the federal government in January to bring home six Canadian women and 13 children who had been part of the court action.
In his ruling, Brown said the Canadian men are not able to return home “in part because their government seems never to have formally requested their repatriation.”
They are not able to enjoy “a truly meaningful exercise” of their Charter right to enter Canada unless and until the federal government makes a formal request to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria on their behalf, he wrote.
“Canada must make a formal request for their repatriation because otherwise the Court is asked to construe the Charter in an ‘unreal world.”’
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023.
Military under fire as thousands of troops face lost cost-of-living allowance
Members of the 5e Regiment d’artillerie legere du Canada board an aircraft heading for Latvia, in Quebec City, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. The Canadian Armed Forces is under fire for its plan to cut thousands of troops off a cost-of-living allowance without much notice. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa
The Canadian Armed Forces is under fire for its plan to cut thousands of troops off a cost-of-living allowance without much notice.
The military announced last week that about 7,700 Armed Forces members will no longer receive the top-up starting in July, when it will be replaced by a new housing benefit that commanders say will better assist those who need the most help.
Social media and online forums dedicated to military personnel have been crackling with dissatisfaction over the plan, including the abbreviated timeline. Some are also unhappy with a new 10 per cent pay increase over four years, retroactive to 2021.
Experts say the lack of notice speaks to larger problems around how the military treats its people, which they worry is sparking anger and frustration at a time when the Canadian Armed Forces is struggling with a recruitment and retention crisis.
“We’re pissing people off,” said retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, who previously served as vice-chief of the defence staff. “And this may be the final straw that pisses them off. It’s not really about compensation. It’s just that they’re not feeling valued.”
The decision to replace the military’s existing cost-of-living allowance with a new housing benefit follows a 14-year battle between the Department of National Defence and Treasury Board, the central department that controls federal spending.
Established in 2000 as a way to compensate members for the added costs of having to live and work in certain communities, the allowance rates were frozen in 2009 as defence and treasury officials fought over the program’s cost and parameters.
Canadian Forces College professor Alan Okros said members were led to believe that that when a deal was finally struck, it would finally raise rates and expand eligibility as troops living in some parts of the country did not qualify.
“There was a generalized tone and expectation of, ‘Look, we’re working on it. … We’re going to sort it all out,'” said Okros, who specializes in military personnel and culture. “There was this generalized expectation of, ‘It’s going to be much better.'”
Such expectations were predicated on the belief that the government would put more money into the pot to compensate troops for their service, particularly given that the Armed Forces is currently dealing with a recruitment and retention crisis.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the military says the new housing benefit is both more equitable and more efficient than the previous allowance as it is tied to salary, includes more geographic locations, and will cost about $30 million less per year.
Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, an expert on military culture at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think tank, said some members who were receiving the cost-of-living allowance would have accounted for that money in their budgetary planning.
“This is the distinction that frustrates people the most, because some of them will not be eligible in this (new benefit) even though they’re struggling in terms of their cost of living,” she said. “There’s going to be a readjustment for people.”
The fact it is being taken away in a matter of months without any previous consultation or warning speaks to problems with how the chain of command treats and communicates with its troops, she added.
“It’s kind of emblematic of the way that we talk about personnel policy and how the military communicates (with) its personnel,” she said. “It’s always big announcements. And then we don’t hear about it for years on end. Then there’s a new announcement.”
The housing benefit has also come under scrutiny, with concerns about the actual rates being based on the cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment without consideration for family size. There’s also a seven-year cap on receiving the benefit in one location.
Members are also complaining that the new pay increase does not keep up with inflation.
The new benefit and pay increase have nonetheless sparked a bit of a debate over compensation for military personnel, with some arguing troops are relatively well paid and most Canadians are facing some sort of economic pressure.
“We’ve got a pretty well-paid force, not only against other allied forces or volunteer forces, but against the general population,” said Thibault, who is now chair of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute think tank.
“In terms of where we’re going with the economy, it’s not unique to the Canadian Forces. It’s a societal problem right now with interest rates, with inflation, with the economy, with housing.”
Rather, experts feel the reaction is more symptomatic of bigger problems as the Armed Forces faces growing demands while struggling with a shortage of personnel, old equipment, and efforts to radically overhaul its culture.
“Our government and Canadians, they seem to care for the Canadian Forces,” Thibault said. “But not care enough about them to make it a priority, or to address some of these longstanding problems.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2023.
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