Speech concerning the Budget

Mr. Speaker, I will share my time with the member for Surrey North.

Almost a year ago, my leader gave me the official opposition housing critic portfolio. Since then, I have risen many times in the House to demand that the government make housing and homelessness priorities.

I also travelled across Canada to meet with Canadians and interest groups to find out what they think about these very important issues. When I read the budget tabled last Thursday by the Minister of Finance, it became clear that I have a long road ahead of me to get anyone to bother listening to these people.

I cannot say that I am surprised by the lack of housing and homelessness measures in the budget. I never once believed that they were priorities for the Conservatives.

I knew what what I was in for when the Conservatives voted as a block against Bill C-400, which was introduced by my colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot to ensure that the different levels of government and the stakeholders would sit down together to assess needs and establish a national housing strategy. But I was shocked when I saw that, the day before the vote, the government posted a document on the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation website claiming that Bill C-400 would cost Canadian taxpayers $5.5 billion even though the stakeholders had not yet met to discuss what was needed, which was the one and only purpose of the bill. The government must be clear and honest with people.

On pages 1112 and 1113 of O'Brien and Bosc's House of Commons Procedure and Practice, we learn that:

There is a constitutional requirement that bills proposing the expenditure of public funds must be accompanied by a royal recommendation, which can be obtained only by the government and introduced by a Minister. Since a Minister cannot propose items of Private Members’ Business, a private Member’s bill should therefore not contain provisions for the spending of funds.

That seems pretty clear to me. What this means is that a private member's bill cannot commit public funds. In light of what I just said, I would like to know how Bill C-400—which was introduced by the member from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot and whose only objective was to have government representatives and stakeholders sit down together to discuss housing issues—could have been assigned the kind of price tag that the Conservatives used to justify voting against the bill? Such a bill would have been considered out of order under the rules of procedure of the House. I will not speculate about the government's motives, but will allow people to draw their own conclusions.

The budget presented last Thursday does not satisfy the NDP official opposition with regard to housing and the fight against homelessness, but let us nevertheless play along and render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

I am pleased that the government has finally committed to renewing the homelessness partnering strategy, as I have requested many times in the House without ever receiving a satisfactory response. However, when I said renewal, I was not just talking about extending full funding for the HPS. I was also asking that it be increased. Unfortunately, funding for the fight against homelessness has never been indexed since the SCPI was introduced in 1999.

You do not need an advanced course in economics to understand that costs and salaries have increased since the program was created and that funding allocated to the fight against homelessness in Canada has been doing less and less to meet the needs of groups in that regard.

I was not only asking that the budget allocated to the program be indexed to reflect those realities; I was also asking that it be increased to reflect the needs of the groups combating homelessness and its repercussions.

Why? Because, unlike my colleagues opposite, I consult stakeholders in the sector and I listen to them. They can tell us about the needs they see, and they can clearly see that homelessness is increasing year after year.

Unfortunately, I get the impression I was simply misunderstood. When the Conservatives say renewal, they understand it in the literal sense. To them, it means “change everything.”

Reading the budget that was presented to us last Thursday, in the section ironically entitled “Housing for Canadians in Need”, on page 228, we see that the government has extended the HPS, providing $119 million in funding a year over five years using a housing first approach.

We in fact learned about this on the morning the budget was presented because, once again, the Conservatives leaked the information to the media in a Canadian Press article entitled “Budget to fund and reorient federal homelessness strategy; new focus on housing.”

There are two important things to know about the HPS. First, not only have the Conservatives not increased or even indexed the program to reflect rising costs and salaries; they have also cut the amount that was allocated to it.

From 2011 to 2014, the program received funding of $134.8 million a year. Now it will be $119 million, which means that groups that already could not meet needs will collectively have to absorb an annual $15.8 million cut to the budget allocated to combat homelessness.

Second, the program's approach has been completely changed. With the housing first approach, any intervention funded by the HPS may be terminated if a number of projects do not give housing priority. Several organizations could thus lose their caseworkers, and the development of new projects to fund capital expenditures could be jeopardized.

In my riding of Hochelaga alone, where homelessness comes in many forms, the program's new purpose could harm several groups already established in the area. Dopamine, a substance abuse organization, and the shelter for prostitutes planned by the CAP Saint-Barnabé could lose caseworkers. This organization may also find it impossible to develop new services starting in 2014.

Far be it from me to speak out against the promising outcomes achieved by the inspirational at home project. However, I want to be very clear. Homelessness is not just a housing problem. Drug abuse, mental health problems and drug-related prostitution should also fall under this program.

In reaction to the budget, Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, who had asked that the HPS take more of a housing first approach, said the following:

While this news is very exciting, there are some important questions that will need to be addressed, namely: What does the government mean by Housing First? What will this shift to Housing First mean to HPS funded communities, programs and existing investments? How will community planning processes & Community Plans change? How will the transition to Housing First be managed?

It's also important to remember that Housing First is a critical component of ending homelessness, but it is not a silver bullet. There are many other critical elements that need to support community plans and Housing First programs in order to reduce & end homelessness.

For us, the HPS must retain a diversity of approaches and respect the independence of the provinces and municipalities that are more familiar with their communities' problems.

Now, the economic action plan has little to say about funding for social housing. The only intentions this government has are stated in the main estimates for 2013-2014, according to which a net decrease of $23.3 million in CMHC's budget, for this year alone, is “to reflect the expiry of long-term project operating agreements.”

Once again this year, the government is not only confirming its complete withdrawal from social housing; it is doing so on the backs of the least well-off in our society and of the Canadian provinces. Those long-term operating agreements currently allow co-operatives and non-profit housing organizations to grant subsidies to their members and tenants so that they do not allocate more than 25% to 30% of their incomes to rent. They also enable the provinces and municipalities to provide low-income housing to the public.

Many of those agreements with CMHC have gradually been expiring in the past few years, and the government is simply not renewing them. Even worse, it feels it is saving money.

If we let this withdrawal continue, by 2030, these cuts will have amounted to $1.7 billion a year, and CMHC will only be managing approximately 15% of its current budget. When I think that the Conservatives were prepared to sign a multi-billion-dollar blank cheque in the F-35 scandal, I feel like saying, “We want houses, not airplanes.”