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The Alberta NDP's Lacklustre Housing Platform
The words 'rent control' are nowhere to be found in the New Democrats' affordable housing commitments.
The Alberta NDP promises to create affordable housing for 40,000 Albertans over five years if elected on May 29.
While housing 8,000 low-income people a year appears to be a good start, by the NDP’s own admission there are 25,000 people on the affordable housing waiting list.
If you look at the NDP’s affordable housing policy, the words ‘rent control’ and ‘below-market’ don’t appear in it, calling into question what the NDP means when they say ‘affordable’.
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The only semblance of rent control in Alberta is a requirement that landlords cannot increase rent more than once a year, and that they must give three months’ notice.
At an April news conference revealing the NDP’s policy paper on housing affordability, party housing critic and Edmonton-area landlord Lori Sigurdson (Edmonton-Riverview) said the NDP would create 8,500 below-market homes, but struggled to define ‘below-market’.
Laura Murphy, an affordable housing researcher at the University of Alberta, told The Orchard that any housing policy focusing exclusively on the quantity of units is a “non-starter,” because it ignores long-term needs and housing quality.
“The minute we start focusing solely on the folks who are struggling the most, rather than focusing on the folks who are the most impacted by the policy, or policy inaction, we lose the plot and we're constantly playing catch up,” Murphy said.
What’s needed, she said, is for housing to be treated as a human right that everyone is, by definition, entitled to.
The NDP policy paper, which is not official policy, included a $1.6-billion capital investment in affordable housing — an increase of one-third from the $1.2 billion provided when it was previously in government.
The party also committed to $120 million in capital funding for Indigenous housing, but it’s unclear whether that’s in addition to the $1.6 billion or included in it.
The party’s costed platform includes $645 million in capital funding over three years for affordable housing. With the $370-million commitment to affordable and Indigenous housing over three years in the UCP’s 2023 budget, that adds up to $1.02 billion.
In order to reach $1.6 billion over five years, an NDP government would have to increase capital funding by $290 million per year in 2026 and 2027.
Given the party’s commitment to running balanced budgets each year of its mandate while freezing income taxes and maintaining dependence on oil and gas revenues, that’s going to be tough.
But dollar amounts don’t tell the full story, Murphy cautioned. Much of the $1.2 billion the NDP says went to affordable housing from 2015 to 2019 was “funny money,” which had already been spent or earmarked for other projects, such as rehabilitating seniors housing.
“The majority [of tenants] didn’t really see any of it, so there needs to be transparency and clarity around funds. They need to be available on an ongoing basis and in a clear and sustainable way,” she said.
For the most part, the NDP plans on bolstering a series of income-support measures and “rental supplement programs,” which will no doubt subsidize the earnings of landlords, but do nothing to address the rampant financialization that’s driving up housing costs.
Responding to a question from a reporter about rent control, Sigurdson said the party’s priority is to create a “rent bank” to assist renters at risk of immediate eviction due to circumstances beyond their control.
“You want to make sure we’re considering the renters themselves, but [also the] people who own the facilities,” she added later.
NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips (Lethbridge-West), who once upon a time was a socialist, now speaks of the need to “stabilize relationships with landlords.”
“We need to give landlords more information and support. We need to make sure people can stay in those market housing solutions,” Phillips said.
When municipal affairs critic Joe Ceci (Calgary-Buffalo) spoke about the NDP’s affordable housing platform at a May 3 campaign event, he offered few additional details but many platitudes.
“We can’t fix health care if nurses can’t afford to live here. We need affordable workplace housing,” he said at a news conference in the Bow Valley. “We can’t have a strong economy if workers can’t afford to live here, and our kids can’t stay here if they can’t afford a future here.”
Ceci is correct about the interconnective nature of housing policy. The question is whether the policies he’s promoting will achieve meaningful, long-term affordability.
The UCP, by contrast, has no affordable housing policy whatsoever. Their affordability platform doesn’t include the word ‘housing’.
This strategic silence masks a far more nefarious agenda the party began implementing under former premier Jason Kenney — privatizing much of the province’s meagre below-market housing stock. This takes the province out of the business of owning and operating affordable housing, placing it into the hands of realtors driven by the pursuit of profit.
The UCP increased the threshold for affordable housing from 30% of a tenant’s income to anywhere from 60% to 90% of market value. Those who cannot afford 60% of market value will be subsidized, with that money going straight to realtors.
Meanwhile, the UCP re-opened Edmonton and Calgary’s city charters to prohibit them from forcing developers to include below-market housing in new developments.
The purpose of this piece isn’t to draw a false equivalency between the NDP and UCP’s approaches to housing, but to point out how the NDP is falling short on one of the greatest challenges of our generation.
I suspect there’s a specific reason why the NDP have failed to do so.
NDP leader Rachel Notley (Edmonton-Strathcona) is a landlord, according to her March 31, 2022, MLA public disclosure statement. She collects income from a rental property she co-owns with her husband, CUPE Alberta spokesperson Lou Arab. As I mentioned earlier, housing critic Sigurdson also earns money from a rental property.
When Passage (since merged with The Maple) released a list of provincial legislators across the country who are landlords in 2021, there were nine Alberta New Democrats listed, including Notley and Sigurdson, representing 37.5% of its caucus.
But, at the same time, Lorne Dach (Edmonton-McClung) purchased a rental property, from which he draws income. Sarah Hoffman (Edmonton-Glenora) now too has a rental property, but she hasn’t reported income from it.
Deron Bilous (Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview), Jasvir Deol (Edmonton-Meadow) and Heather Sweet (Edmonton-Manning) are landlords — all of whom earn income from rentals. While Sweet didn’t collect income on her property in 2020, she does now.
Since only sitting MLAs have to file public disclosure statements under the Conflict of Interest Act, the number of NDP candidates owning rental property is certainly greater than seven.
One wonders whether the NDP’s lack of firm commitments on affordable housing has to do with the fact that their leader and six incumbent candidates benefit financially from growing housing costs.
Murphy cautioned that direct investment in rental housing is just one way elected officials can benefit from the financialization of housing, which is intertwined with investments in other companies and pension funds, so looking at legislators who are landlords just scratches the surface.
“There's just so much that’s so shadowy about housing that it's very difficult to understand where clear conflicts of interest are,” she said, noting that these conflicts incentivize politicians to approach housing as a commodity, rather than a right.
I didn’t bother requesting comment from the Alberta NDP, since they’ve ignored my past three inquiries, and have similarly ignored my pleas to put me on their media list, which they appear to have removed me from early this year.
If you share my frustration, feel free to politely let NDP communications director Malissa Dunphy know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The A/V Corner
Listen: On the Forgotten Corner, we hosted a third-party leaders’ debate, featuring Jordan Wilkie of the Green Party, Barry Morishita of the Alberta Party and Naomi Rankin of the Communist Party. We discussed taxes, health care, education and the environment.