Housing the Homeless in Manitoba: What’s the Plan?

The National Conference on Ending Homelessness was held in Winnipeg October 25-27.

Minister Scott Fielding joined Mayor Bowman and Adam Vaughan, the federal government’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Social Development, to share with delegates what their governments are doing about homelessness.  While those in attendance were encouraged to hear that the federal government will soon release its housing strategy, there was less optimism about the role the Province of Manitoba will play.  Provincial governments have a central role in ensuring housing is available for low-income individuals and families.

Minister Fielding made no commitments.

So what exactly is his government doing to address homelessness?

As described in this article by Right to Housing Coalition Chair, Kirsten Bernas, the Province of Manitoba is on the path to reverse gains made in social housing in recent years.

And a recent KPMG Manitoba Fiscal Policy Review Report: Business Case Social Housing, lays out what we can expect from the Manitoba Government moving forward.  It makes a case for selling the supply of social housing, in spite of the evidence that shows privatization of social housing has led to increased homelessness.

Nonetheless, The Pallister government’s actions to date demonstrate a complete lack of regard for the evidence.  For example:

  • In May 2017 the Manitoba government declined funding for 10 emergency shelter beds for homeless women at Red Road Lodge.
  • In June 2017, the Manitoba government increased rental costs for some low-income earners living Manitoba Housing. This could see tenants paying an extra $720 a year.
    • Manitoba Housing has also eliminated choice of location from the application process.
  • In July 2017 Manitoba cut the Rent Assist benefit for over 7,000 families, reducing benefits by up to $1200 a year for some families.
  • In July 2017 the Manitoba government announces the sale of a multi-unit public housing complex at 185 Smith street. Privatization plans begin.
  • In August 2017 the Pallister government cancelled the Community Housing Improvement Initiative.  This $510,000 program distributed more that 200 grant in the last two years, contributing to the revitalization of low-income neighbourhoods.
  • On November 1st 2017, the Pallister government increased rents in public housing from 25% of household income to 28% of income. People living in public housing who already struggle to get by will need to make up the difference. That often means dipping into food budgets, greater reliance on charity, and fewer choices.

These actions give us an indication of the value the Pallister government places on ensuring that all Manitoban’s have a decent place to live.  And if the Manitoba government proceeds with recommendations put forward in the KPMG report on Social Housing, we anticipate that things are about to get far worse.

 

 

KPMG’s Manitoba Fiscal Performance Review

For those of us who value a Manitoba built on a foundation of compassion and social and economic fairness, the recently released Manitoba Fiscal Performance Review is deeply troubling.  If implemented by the Pallister government, the $740,000 KPMG Report will have far reaching, and in some cases irreversible implications for Manitoba.  The report’s recommendations include job cuts, selling-off social housing, reducing access to services for disabled adults, including those with intellectual disabilities, cuts to post-secondary education tuitions hikes, elimination of interest free student loans, and references to a host of yet to be determined “cost savings”.

Manitoban’s should be very concerned with what is sure to be the Pallister Government’s playbook going forward.  There is a lot to unpack as we sift through the multi volume report. Here are a few highlights that give us an indication of what we are up against.

The Review describes 6 areas of opportunity: Reduction of Select Tax Credits, Rationalization from Reorganization, Procurement Modernization, Real Estate Rationalization, Reducing Direct Support to Businesses, School and Post-Secondary Funding (initial phase focused on post-secondary funding).  The Report identifies 6 “transformational areas” with opportunity for “cost improvement” including:  School and Post-Secondary Funding, Families: Organizational and Process Transformation, Asset Management Planning and Rationalization, Justice System Reform, Capital Project Management and Delivery, and Review of Agencies, Boards and Commissions.

After laying out a vague series of cost cutting recommendations that lay the groundwork for privatization,  the report provides a “Summary of Advice for Consideration” that includes “Key Communication Points.” This advice makes clear the serious limitations of a review that focuses solely on finances with no regard for the public good. KPMG describes being tasked with conducting “a Fiscal Performance Review to identify potential areas of opportunity for efficiency and cost improvement in all departments with the exception of Health to “gain better control over the growth in core government spending, with better value for money and allocation of fiscal resources without adversely impacting front line services. It notes $7.3 billion of “in-scope” spending for the review.  The report describes a collaborative process including KPMG, Treasury Board Secretariat and central agencies, with input from departments.

It is notable that KPMG points to a short timeframe for its  assessment, leading to the immediate focus on identifying significant short-term cost improvement opportunities, as well as other material long term opportunities which should be considered going forward. This is a big red flag.  It tells us that KPMG is proposing significant short-term cost savings with no regard for long term impact.

In the report, KPMG describes a Fiscal Performance Review Framework intended to provide a consistent, systemic framework (principles, guidelines, criteria) for looking at spending and evaluating initiatives and programs across departments and branches. It speaks to the need for a results-based approach with a better focus on results and value for taxpayer dollars, yet it makes cost-cutting recommendations without indicating how results have or will be assessed.

The Report boasts of finding several areas of “opportunity” exceeding $50 million in potential cost “improvement” opportunities in 2017/18. It goes on to note a “second-wave”  of cuts in over $50 million.  KPMG, the governments appointed Steering Committee and Manitoba’s Treasury Board have targeted six key areas for immediate action.

Other than a brief mention of “social value” and a few buzzwords like “citizen centric”, “highest value to taxpayers” and a promise for “better care, better education, and a clean, green environment”, the aim of the Review is clearly aligned with Premier Pallister’s mission to dismantle and privatize Manitoba’s public services.

The Manitoba Fiscal Performance Review is narrowly and unabashedly focused on cuts at any cost.  There is no assessment of the long term social and economic impact of the transformational shifts in policy that it recklessly prescribes.

We’ll learn more as we delve deeper into the KPMG report, but this we know for certain. The Manitoba Fiscal Performance Review has little to do with improving Manitoba for Manitobans, and everything to do with Premier Pallister’s ideological mission.

Stay tuned for further posts as we continue to examine Manitoba’s Fiscal Performance Review

 

Manitoba Housing units left vacant while homelessness soars

CBC recently published two stories about two different vacant buildings owned by Manitoba Housing that once housed some of our province’s most vulnerable citizens. These vacant buildings could house around 400 people. But one building, located on downtown’s Smith Street, has been sitting vacant for almost a year now, and the other for two years. The Province has not confirmed if any other buildings are currently unoccupied.

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This news is alarming once you learn that 7,500 new rental housing units are needed just to house Winnipeg’s homeless population (see page 48 of The Plan to End Homelessness in Winnipeg). Further, the Pallister government has yet to make any commitment around building new social housing.

If the Province is not going to build any new housing, it should at least make use of its existing assets. The 373 bachelor units in the Smith property could be meeting the needs of one of the most under-served groups – single individuals tend to wait the longest for public housing as families are given first priority.

The Province says that both buildings require significant repairs. But one building was housing refugees as recently as nine months ago and the other property has already received $4.3M dollars in repairs. So it’s not clear what further work needs to be done to make the buildings habitable. Whatever it amounts to, the Province should take advantage of the current opportunity to leverage the federal dollars that are available for repairing and restoring social housing.

For now, the required investments are on hold. According to the CBC reports, the Pallister government says it is undergoing a provincial review of Manitoba Housing and that it is working on a ‘modernized provincial housing plan.’

So what can we expect to see in this new plan? Time will tell. Budget 2017 signaled that the Pallister government will have a much smaller capital program this year – meaning it is expected to invest fewer resources in building new and repairing existing Manitoba Housing units.

The Pallister government also reduced its transfer to Manitoba Housing by $20M. How will the corporation make up this difference? Will it sell its assets? Or raise rents for people who are in core housing need? Neither option is appealing.

The Province has already transferred its management responsibilities for 66 publicly-owned housing units in Winkler to a community-based non-profit, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the next step transferred ownership of the asset from Manitoba Housing to the non-profit. A recent audit of BC’s asset transfer program highlights how the program has put the long-term sustainability of affordable housing in BC at risk, and should act as a warning to the Pallister government.

So it sounds like the future of the two vacant Manitoba Housing units will remain unknown until the Province completes its review of Manitoba Housing. Meanwhile, thousands of Manitobans including women escaping domestic violence, youth exiting out of the care of Child and Family Services, and newly arrived refugees or asylum seekers will continue to be threatened with homelessness.