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Opinion: No better return on investment for Edmonton than providing housing

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This week, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and business advocates came out and said the city must consider the return on every dollar this budget. That it really needs to ignite, focus, and commit, as it considers its new budget for 2023-2026.

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It may be surprising to some, but as a housing advocate, I couldn’t agree more.

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When it comes to building an Edmonton for all, we are going to have to make big choices, to make sure everyone is paying their fair share, and to take leadership on tough areas — especially housing. All of this remains true. But we can also do these things while making smart choices and leveraging our dollars for maximum return and impact.

It’s an unfortunate reality that in the absence of leadership — and competence — on housing at the provincial level, the city must continue to be a leader and first-funder on their affordable housing investment strategy.

Why is this leadership important, especially now? Because we are in a full-blown crisis. Homelessness has more than doubled since 2019. On Nov. 14,811 people slept outdoors and 2,665 people were experiencing homelessness of every type. Nearly 20 percent of these people identified as youth, and almost half identified as Indigenous.

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These numbers from Homeward Trust’s By the Name data tell the story of thousands of examples of policy failure and inaction. It’s truly heartbreaking and it’s infuriating to community members and advocates who have experienced homelessness or suffered for years and decades as things have gone from bad to worse.

But in this budget cycle, we have a generational opportunity to plant seeds that will bring forward federal, provincial, and municipal resources to start adequately responding to the crisis we see in our streets and in the valley every day.

And this opportunity should ignite the passions of not just the usual suspects in the advocacy community, but business leaders at the chamber as well. Why? Because according to the City of Edmonton’s own budget analysis for council, for every single dollar the city invested in housing, it got four in return.

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From 2019-2022, the city budgeted $132.7 million in its Affordable Housing Investment Plan. From that investment, it leveraged nearly $200 million from other governments and $351 million in equity from providers. All told, the city’s commitment resulted in a direct investment of $689 million and supported the creation of 2,728 new affordable housing units — talk about “catalyzing” investment.

This cycle, in order to be ready again to catch all the investment from other governments, we need to see $91 million in capital investment, $75 million in operating, a new grant program for housing providers, and the fully funded public washroom strategy.

Combined, these investments will put Edmonton on track to significantly reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness (by up to 25 per cent according to the Homeward Trust). It will also ensure housing providers can continue to support Edmontonians in permanent supportive housing, and make sure that people can access safe and clean washroom facilities.

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But the coming weeks will be full of debate. No doubt. We will hear all about how we need to make tough choices and get back to basics. About how the city shouldn’t have to step up where the province has stood down. There may be some element of truth to these positions. But seven people died outside in the past 10 days. Some burned to death and some froze. In my version of Edmonton, that doesn’t happen. But right now it does.

No amount of pointing fingers at others will change the realities we are seeing right now. Only urgent investment and leadership will.

And, really, the truth is that human rights — like housing — are basics. It shouldn’t be a tough choice for us to stand together and support all Edmontonians when the alternative is to wait on the province. Housing is essential and we need to raise our voices now and not lose the momentum on housing that the city has had for the past four years. If we do that, we will see our partners come to the table. I’m confident in that.

As organizers and community advocates, we will be making sure our mayor and council know they have our support as Edmontonians to ignite our potential on housing. We can focus and commit to doing hard and good things — like ensuring we tackle the housing crisis with heart, with resources, and with urgency.

We need to build housing now, Edmonton. Let’s get it done.

Bradley Lafortune is executive director of Public Interest Alberta.

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