'A critical role': Taking the pulse on Edmonton's affordable housing strategy

The City of Edmonton is on its way to meeting its goal of implementing 2,500 units of affordable housing, including 600 units of supportive housing, by the end of 2022. But there's still a gap in meeting the needs of Edmontonians who don't have a proper place to live in.

The target is attached to the city's affordable housing investment guidelines, which were developed four years ago to set the expectation that affordable housing is a core part of public infrastructure.

"The pandemic provided a little bit of a delay for us ... but last time I checked we were close to 1,600 total units and we had just completed a third intake for that program, which has a lot of really strong applications," Christel Kjenner, the city's director of affordable housing, said on Episode 154 of Speaking Municipally, Taproot's civic affairs podcast.

She expects that more units will be approved from that intake soon. The city has also already confirmed 400 units of supportive housing, with another 200 "in the pipeline" that are attached to funding Kjenner is hoping will be approved.

While that's a step in the right direction, there's still a substantial gap between what's available and what's needed, Kjenner indicated in the episode, recorded as the city marks Edmonton Housing Month in November.

"Housing plays a very critical role as a foundation for pretty much everything else," added Giri Puligandla, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) - Edmonton Region. "Many of us have the privilege of taking housing for granted and we just have to recognize that there are a lot of people for whom housing is a need."

A bar chart showing the number of homeless persons in Edmonton, reaching 2,642 in Q3 of 2021

Statistics gathered by the Edmonton Social Planning Council indicate significant growth in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton. (Edmonton Social Planning Council)

Civida, which helps people find affordable housing in Edmonton, currently has about 8,000 people on its waitlist for deep subsidy housing, Kjenner said. There are also about 55,000 Edmontonians who are in core housing need, which is when someone is living in housing that falls below the standards of adequacy because it's in need of major repairs, isn't affordable for the tenant, or isn't suitable due to overcrowding or too few bedrooms for the number of people living there.

"The gap is significant. There are different strategies for meeting that need including ... rent subsidies and income supplements that are offered by other orders of government as well. But there's no doubt that we have a shortage of affordable housing in the city and there's more that we need to do," Kjenner said.

When asked by Speaking Municipally co-host Troy Pavlek why it isn't possible to fund a solution that would bridge the entire gap, Kjenner said all three orders of government would need to invest in order to solve the problem sustainably. The city has already provided close to $200 million during the current four-year budget cycle ($132 million was approved for the affordable housing investment plan initially in 2018).

The city hoped that funding could be used to create "shovel-ready projects" that could easily be funded by other orders of government. While that strategy has started to pay off, most housing takes several years to develop and build, so the effects won't be felt immediately.

"It also takes time for the non-profit sector that we're working with to ramp up and expect to be able to access funds on a consistent basis, which is something that hadn't existed for many years prior to the launch of the new affordable housing strategy," Kjenner explained.

The CMHA is one of the organizations that the city engages with on this issue. Puligandla said right now it's looking at what it would take to hire people who have lived experienced of mental illness, addiction, or houselessness, and who have also recovered and rebuilt their lives. He envisions them being able to check in on people, provide some skill development, and create a sense of community.

It's about figuring how to "connect the dots between peer support and housing support to fill that pretty big gap in the middle," Puligandla said. And in turn, that could support people in keeping their housing when they are able to access it.

The speaker series for Edmonton Housing Month continues this week with "Reaching Home Program: The challenges faced during COVID and the current affordable housing crisis" on Nov. 9, and "Strategies for responding to community opposition for affordable housing providers" on Nov. 10.

Council's executive committee is expected to receive information on a number of housing-related items on Nov. 16, including reports on the winter pandemic response and the Rapid Housing Initiative funding agreements.