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St. Albert commits $2.85M for downtown affordable housing project

Homeland Housing now only needs provincial grant funding to get shovels in the ground
Mayor Cathy Heron, left, and Coun. Mike Killick, right, pictured here in 2023, both argued on June 18 that providing the additional funding would show St. Albert's commitment to the project. JACK FARRELL/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert will provide Homeland Housing with $2.85 million to develop the agency's downtown affordable housing project, following a 5-2 council vote on June 18.

The project, referred to in council documents as the 22 St. Thomas Street project, involves a mixed-use rental building that will have 118 apartments and some street-facing commercial space on the ground floor. In fall 2022, council voted to transfer the undeveloped 1.3-acre property to Homeland Housing for $1. At the time, the property was appraised at $2.65 million. The city tried to sell the land for $3.82 million in 2019 but didn't receive any offers.

As part of the city's land transfer agreement with the agency, at least 55 per cent of the building's rental units will need to be maintained as below-market housing for a minimum of 30 years.

Homeland Housing, which is a public non-profit housing provider that operates in nine communities, originally requested St. Albert put up $2.19 million in funding towards the project's capital costs in order to “strengthen” the organization's grant applications, but council decided to provide the agency with $655,000 on top of its request to ensure the city's contribution totals 12 per cent of the project's overall cost.

Bold decision

Mayor Cathy Heron said providing over and above the funding amount requested by the agency was a “ballsy and bold move.”

“I think it's about time that the city did really make a strong commitment towards housing,” Heron said prior to voting.

Echoing Heron was Coun. Natalie Joly, who said during the meeting that affordable housing was a priority for the community.

“Affordability is a priority to the people who are leaders in our community and to the residents of our community, so it's exciting to see that council priorities and where we're investing funding is matching the needs that are seen by people in the community,” said Joly, who represents St. Albert on Homeland Housing's board of directors. “I'm really excited about seeing the province support this project; I know it's a priority for them as well to get more affordable housing in the region.”

Likewise, Coun. Wes Brodhead said the project was a “home run,” and the number of affordable housing units the project is expected to provide will benefit the city.

“We're certainly indicating to Homeland Housing and to anybody in the Alberta government who's listening that we're really on board with building this project in our community,” he said. 

“I think it also certainly aligns with council's stated priority of bringing vibrancy to the downtown core, and people bring vibrancy.”

Those opposed to the $2.85 million in funding for the project was Coun. Shelley Biermanski and Coun. Sheena Hughes, who both argued the city couldn't afford to put this amount of money into the project, especially because the funds will be taken out of the city's stabilization reserve, which is kept to cover one-off unplanned expenditures and emergencies.

“I think we have to be cognizant of saying 'no' sometimes, or 'we can't afford it' sometimes,” Biermanski said. “If we're constantly saying we have more to give when we realistically don't have more to give, and it will be taken from another area, it's really difficult.”

“I know the community needs affordable housing, and I know there are housing projects that need fixing, there's just so many projects, and if we had the money for all of them in a perfect world, that would be great.”

Hughes was especially concerned about the funding source and noted during debate that $2.85 million is almost one-third of the stabilization reserve's balance.

“This is not an emergency,” she said. “We should be saving this money for actual emergencies that come up.”

“A fire truck can blow up, all sorts of things can happen ... and none of them are cheap.”

The $2.85 million in funding will be contingent on Homeland Housing securing enough grant funding from the provincial government or other funding sources to allow for construction to begin.

Lory Scott, the city's affordable housing liaison, wrote in a report to council that many affordable housing grant programs at the provincial and federal level require municipal funding contributions toward a project, and the provincial Affordable Housing Partnership Program specifically asks municipalities to provide between 12 and 15 per cent of total project costs.

“The city's increased funding commitment is expected to strengthen Homeland Housing's application to both the Alberta Affordable Housing Partnership Program (AHPP) and federal housing funding and loan programs,” Scott wrote. He added that without additional funding, council risked further delaying the 22 St. Thomas Street project or risked making it unviable.

According to Scott's report to the council, St. Albert needs 3,165 affordable rental units to meet the community's needs, and more than 1,600 St. Albert households, both homeowners and renters, are in core housing need. 

“St. Albert has 1.8 per cent of its housing stock available as affordable housing compared to the provincial average of 3.1 per cent,” Scott wrote.

Provincial funding all that's missing

Homeland Housing's chief executive officer, Raymond Cormie, told the Gazette after the council meeting that provincial grant funding is all the agency needs to get shovels in the ground, as the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation has also provided the agency with funding — under the condition that the province does the same.

“The missing piece of the puzzle is essentially the province approving the grant application for 22 St. Thomas Street,” Cormie said. Homeland Housing had applied for the Alberta government's Affordable Housing Partnership Program (AHPP) last October, but didn't make most recent list of funding recipients, which the province announced last month.

Cormie said Homeland Housing will be resubmitting its AHPP application in October when the province is expected to begin accepting proposals for next year's funding stream, this time with a stronger proposal thanks to the increased funding city council approved on Tuesday.

“The bottom line is Homeland, and myself, we're very grateful for council's support in bringing affordable housing to St. Albert,” he said. “I think that everyone's beginning to recognize that housing affordability is no longer a big-city problem, it is really a problem that's affecting all communities in Alberta.”

“The need for affordable housing is really critical to ensure the viability of your community, so I'm really excited that through this additional support, that we can bring the 22 St. Thomas Street project to a reality.”

The press secretary for the Seniors, Community, and Social Services ministry, which administers the AHPP, did not respond to the Gazette's request for comment before press deadline.

If Homeland Housing's AHPP application is approved, it's possible construction could begin next summer.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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