Alberta’s government is taking steps towards private partnerships and the sale of affordable housing projects

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The Alberta government on Monday introduced legislation that would open the door to controversial public-private partnerships for affordable housing projects.

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If Bill 78, the Alberta Housing Amendment Act, is passed, it will allow the government to enter into “joint ventures” with for-profit private companies in an effort to attract more investment to expand and improve affordable housing. The government said that once the bill enters into force, it will go on to revise its assets with the aim of selling some state-owned affordable housing.

At a Monday news conference before the bill was introduced, seniors and housing minister Josephine Pon argued that the measures did not constitute privatization because the proceeds from the sale would go back to its efforts for affordable housing, and public-private partnerships – also known as P3s – would still see the government heavily involved.

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“We call it a partnership – not privatization … the government will still manage and work with the owner or non-profit organizations or housing providers, and we will still continue to govern,” Pon said, adding that the government would enforce agreements to retain housing units affordable.

However, details of potential P3s will depend on agreements that have not yet been finalized. Pon said they will save taxpayers’ dollars by converting assets into cash that could pay for operating expenses, but details of partners and agreements will be released “later.”

Pon said that if a private company after 10 years wants out of a deal, the government would take over the facility.

The measures are based on the recommendations of the Alberta Housing Review Panel and its 10-year affordable housing strategy. Previous legislation did not authorize the government to enter into such “joint venture” partnership agreements.

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As the government aims to shift its role away from the role of a significant homeowner to a financier and regulator, Pon said too much of the affordable housing system is inefficient and bound by bureaucracy.

“State investment alone may not meet the growing need for affordable housing in Alberta, but there is still a need for the government to provide funding and other incentives and hold our partners accountable to Albertans,” she said.

In April, more than 110,000 low-income Albertans lived in affordable housing, and more than 24,000 were on the waiting list. Pon said the government aims to reduce the waiting list by 30 percent by 2023.

The 10-year strategy aims to support an additional 25,000 households, increasing the total number of people accessing affordable housing to 82,000.

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When the bill enters into force, the government will begin to develop its “asset management framework”, which will identify properties for sale, transfer, retention or development.

NDP opposition senior and housing critic Lori Sigurdson said on Monday, despite the minister’s comments, that the bill is about privatization.

“They absolve themselves of responsibility and sell assets that they should actually support and invest in,” said Sigurdson, adding that P3s could allow private companies to evade responsibility and let services suffer.

Sigurdson added that she is concerned that the bill omits many important details, including about what developers will gain, how the homes will be priced, what standards there will be and whether they will have comprehensive support services.

“The bill is very thin and it gives a lot of things to the minister’s discretion,” she said, adding that P3s could lead to higher costs for the government and taxpayers in the long run.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reporttrix

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