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Not One New Penny For Housing

Editor's Note: This editorial is reprinted from the Toronto Star, February 28, 2005.

Housing Minister Joe Fontana swung into damage control within hours of last week's federal budget. He had a lot to explain. Not one penny of the $1.5 billion in housing funds promised by the Liberals in the last election materialized in the budget. Not one paragraph was devoted to affordable housing. Not one new housing initiative was launched. Opting for the direct approach, the minister phoned housing advocates. Some reacted with fury. Others gave him grudging credit for daring to raise his head.

Since being named minister in July, Fontana has been promising that housing money would start flowing "within weeks." He had been assuring Canadians that a national housing strategy was in the works. He had been telling the homeless they have a strong voice at the cabinet table.

There was no evidence of it in the federal budget.

In his conversations with housing activists, Fontana made three lame points in his own defence:

First, he could not persuade his cabinet colleagues to authorize new spending because Ottawa had $800 million in unspent funds from past federal-provincial housing agreements. That money would soon be available, the minister insisted cheerfully.

Second, he was directing Karen Kinsley, president of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to come up with options to reinvest the agency's profits in affordable housing. That could bring more than $700 million a year on stream.

Third, there was always a possibility of a funding announcement outside the budget cycle.

Michael Shapcott of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee was unimpressed. "We're not placated and we're not going to go away," he vowed.

Street nurse Cathy Crowe was bitter. "I really believed the promise of $1.5 billion," she said. "This is a betrayal."

The media, for the most part, ignored their complaints. What's missing from a budget doesn't normally make news.

Even their usual allies--the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Labour Congress, faith groups and child poverty activists-were disinclined to make a fuss. Most got something they wanted in the budget and they didn't want to look ungrateful.

Housing activists aren't sure what to do now.

They doubt that Fontana will have much success in freeing up the money sitting in federal coffers. It has been caught in a federal-provincial logjam for four years. The new housing minister seems as incapable of breaking the impasse (especially with Ontario) as his predecessors.

Nor are they counting on any outpouring of funds from CMHC. The federal Liberals have been talking about redeploying the crown corporation's profits since 2002.

As for a future funding announcement, that looks as likely as an out-of-season visit from Santa Claus.

Nevertheless, Shapcott and his crew will troop off to the next federal-provincial housing ministers' meeting in Nova Scotia in April brandishing copies of Prime Minister Paul Martin's latest Speech from the Throne ("Shelter is the foundation upon which healthy communities and individual dignity are built") and the 2004 Liberal campaign platform ("A Liberal government will do more to stimulate assisted housing by providing a further $1 billion to $1.5 billion over the next five years").

They've tried to prod, cajole or shame the country's elected leaders into acting before. With more doggedness than optimism, they'll try again.

But Fontana has as much of a problem as they do. He has just lost a very visible cabinet battle--an inauspicious start to a ministerial career.

He has to find a way to salvage his credibility. He has to convince Canadians that the national housing framework he intends to unveil next month is new, when it's clear that it is a repacking of old programs.

Publicly, Fontana is putting on a brave face. He says the Martin government is as committed as ever to addressing the shortage of affordable housing in this country. He says the federal cabinet understands that adequate shelter is a basic human right. He says that with a little patience and goodwill on all sides, Ottawa, the provinces and the municipalities can work together on affordable housing.

But on the ground, a quarter of a million Canadians still have no place to call home. Another 1.7 million households can barely afford to keep a roof over their head.

Finance Minister Ralph Goodale called last week's budget "Delivering on Commitments." For one embarrassed cabinet minister, that was not the case.

Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Reproduced courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.