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Affordable housing debates rage on

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Affordable housing dominated media coverage the past week including a CBC-hosted open forum at the University of Calgary's MacEwan Hall Ballroom on Wed., May 16.

Although individuals on all sides of the dispute agreed that there is a housing crisis in Alberta, they differ on how, or if, the crisis should be addressed.

Liberal MLA Bruce Miller, who was also a member of the provincial government's Affordable Housing Task Force said the task force was concerned about the creation of a new category of people: the nearly homeless.

"There are a lot of people that are just one rental increase away from being on the streets," said Miller. "Some people are just not going to be able to cope and I don't know where they are going to live."

Miller said although the government is starting to address the crisis, they are not responding fast enough.

"[The Liberals] agreed with the task force on housing that there should be a package of sticks and carrots," said Miller. "Sticks meaning there needs to be some control, and carrots that we need to protect the renter. Our own liberal position was a 10 per cent. The task force recommended 2 per cent plus the [consumer price index]. The government, of course, rejected both. Rent control is only part of it. After a big stick like that there has to be carrots. There have to be incentives to build more affordable housing."

Calgary Housing Initiative co-ordinator Grant Neufeld agreed that the government is not doing enough to combat rent increases.

"The key barriers to addressing the housing crisis are not technological, they're not financial, they're not regulatory," said Neufeld. "They are political will and public will."

Neufeld said rent control is being misrepresented as a disincentive for profit and labeled tax infrastructure as the real disincentive for developers.

"Rent control does not mean an end to profit," said Neufeld. "It does not mean that these buildings will not be profitable, it just means that there is some protection for tenants. The proposed rent control that was recommended in the affordable housing task force that the provincial government put out called for inflation plus two per cent, which would be a perfectly adequate level of income increase in the costs associated with running these buildings and with maintaining a reasonable profit."

Boardwalk Rental Communities chief executive officer Sam Kolias disagreed.

"In all jurisdictions where [rental controls] are implemented, they promote deterioration of apartments," said Kolias. "They pan string apartment owners and put them in financial hardship situations because expenses usually are rising more than the allowable rents. The truth is, most people can afford to rent."

Communications director for Municipal Affairs and Housing Robert Storrier explained the standard qualification for provincial programs is that no more than 30 per cent of an individual's income should be directed towards housing.

Storrier said the Tory's budget has allocated $285 million for affordable housing in the province.

"That includes the municipal sustainability housing program which has a budget of $100 million this year for affordable housing; the capital enhancement program, which is $96 million for development of affordable housing. They've increased homeless support for the shelters and those type of services by $13 million to $35 million; the provincial homeless initiative has been doubled from three to six million dollars. The rent supplement program was increased by over $14 million to $33 million this year."

According to Storrier, the money will be given to municipalities to allocate as they see fit.

"[Municipalities] could be looking at building new affordable housing," he said. "They could be looking at purchasing existing apartments and converting them into affordable housing. They could be looking at incentives to encourage more development of secondary suites; they could be looking at increases in rent supplement programs."

Students' Union vice-president external Mike Selnes said students are affected by both affordable housing and the virtual absence of available rental residences, sometimes rendering students optionless.

"Affordable housing, or the lack of affordable housing, is one of the biggest issues facing students right now," he said. "We were just at a Council of Alberta University Students retreat this weekend and it's been identified province-wide, not just in Calgary."

Liberal leader Kevin Taft was also concerned with the effect of soaring rental prices on students.

"It's going to hit students really hard," predicted Taft. "It's going to drive them back to living at home or maybe even prevent them from attending university because they just can't afford to rent."

Tenants affected by rent hikes can call 1-866-644-5135 for government assistance.

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