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Affordability, accessibility, and housing stock also an issue in rural Alberta

By Jessica Nelson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette
Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLachlin. (Photo from RMA Facebook)

By Jessica Nelson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette

The president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta thinks rural communities could play an important role in solving the province’s affordable housing shortage.

Paul McLauchlin (who is also the reeve of Ponoak County) says energy should be spent on growing rural communities, instead of focusing solely on housing increases in urban areas.

“With the advent of more virtual-work workforce, you can build tremendously affordable housing in more remote and rural Alberta that can fill the housing need, and you could probably build two to three times the housing stock if you actually started to look at a more remote model, instead of just sprawling the bigger metros,” McLauchlin said.

The need for affordable housing is a Canada-wide issue that involves all levels of government.

On July 24, Alberta Seniors, Community, and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon announced the province would open another round of funding for the Affordable Housing Partnership Program (AHPP), but whether that funding will have an impact in rural Alberta remains to be seen.

The province said this round of funding will provide $68 million to “support innovative and sustainable affordable housing solutions for low-income Albertans.”

Funding for the program is provided through the National Housing Strategy 10-year bilateral agreement between the governments of Canada and Alberta, according to a news release. Applications are open until Oct. 16, and are available to public, non-profit, and the private sector.

This is the second round of funding for the AHPP. The first round of funding ended in January, and according to the province, $124.7 million in funding was approved for 30 projects that “supported more than 1,100 affordable housing units across Alberta.”

McLauchlin said the provincial and federal programs should more to address the needs of rural communities

“The biggest problem we find with a lot of these provincial and federal funding programs is whether or not they address the needs of lower population, more remote communities, and in most cases, the programs aren’t designed for that.

“You can’t forget that the more remote areas have equal pressure and equal need, and typically don’t have access to that funding as much as people understand,” he said.

McLauchlin said it’s difficult to pursue funding for remote communities because it becomes a “workforce-expertise conversation.”

Smaller communities might not have the resources to allocate an individual to pursue funding opportunities, and McLauchlin thinks part of the conversation needs to be focused not only on providing access to funds, but also on providing capacity to apply for those funds.

“We have an extra added strain on the system because it’s tougher for us to even apply for the funding, let alone whether or not we fit the criteria,” he said.

McLauchlin said there is also a workforce issue when it comes to building housing stock.

“There is a workforce issue too in Alberta and even in rural Alberta, on building these accommodations and providing these much-needed houses all throughout the province,” he said.

Kabir Shihani, capital funding manager at the Rural Development Network (RDN) sustainable housing initiative, said there is a desperate need for affordable housing across the whole landscape in rural Alberta.

“People think that housing need only affect cities. But in rural communities (they) generally don’t have enough housing stock. There are not enough housing units available to rent or they’re not accessible,” he said.

Shihani said the RDN has heard about the great need for housing in central and southern Alberta, but they have also been working on projects in northern Alberta.

One issue the RDN is working on is helping remote and rural areas address capacity issues and help build affordable housing in communities.

Shihani said there has been an influx of people moving to rural communities and the influx has caused an issue with not only housing stock but also the affordability of housing in rural areas.

“There are less homes available, so the price is driven up and then there are less homes for people to rent,” he said. “There’s less places for people to live. And with the cost of construction since COVID going up there’s less homes that are being built as well.”

Shihani said housing insecurity is a big issue in rural Alberta.

“There’s a huge crisis of homelessness as well in rural areas. And a lot of the time, there’s less data on those areas. People don’t really know what is happening in those areas,” he said.

Shihani thinks the funding announcement by the province is a good thing and he thinks all levels of government need to be more involved in housing issues.

“Government shouldn’t really have a hands-off approach to an issue that many consider to be like a human right. I mean, we can all agree that housing is a human right.

“It’s difficult for people who find themselves in situations where they can’t afford their housing. It’s just getting worse over time, so it needs to be addressed. It’s becoming very unaffordable for most people to just go about their day-to-day lives, and live… we all need to kind of be involved in addressing this issue. We can’t really stand back.”