Housing, food insecurity focus areas for P.E.I. opposition parties
Concerns around the cost of living were front and centre in the P.E.I. Legislature on Thursday, with MLAs focused on the lack of affordable housing in the province, and food insecurity.
And while MLAs from all parties discussed the scope of the challenges facing the province, there was little new information as to how the King government plans to address them — and at times a lack of concrete numbers regarding how many Islanders are in the groups most affected.
"Inadequate and insecure housing is a reality for far too many Islanders, and the consequences have been too many Islanders living in unsafe conditions," said Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly.
He raised the specific issue of the lack of transitional housing in P.E.I., citing a recent report from CBC on Blooming House, the women's shelter in Charlottetown.
The shelter said it's been operating at capacity, with many women having to stay there for months because there's nowhere else for them to go.
Transitional housing is meant to be the next step up from someone coming out of an emergency shelter, but who still requires some support to live on their own.
"I understand that it is a challenge to move people from our shelters into transitional housing," responded Rob Lantz, Minister of Housing, Land and Communities.
Lantz noted in its previous term in office — before he was elected — the government of Dennis King "spent a great deal of effort to make sure that our shelter system here in Charlottetown was adequately resourced," with the opening of a new homeless shelter on Park Street, using modular housing units brought in from Alberta.
Housing 'chronically underfunded,' says minister
The new shelter was meant to offer a place to stay for a growing number of Islanders living in encampments.
Beyond that new shelter, though, Lantz said "we need to work on the housing issue throughout the entire continuum. We need more housing, from shelter space to market space. We all acknowledge the problem. We acknowledged in the speech from the throne that our housing programs are chronically underfunded here."
Lantz said there are plans to increase the supply of transitional housing, but didn't share details.
The Green Party brought forward its own analysis of data from the most recent census which showed that, between 2016 and 2021, P.E.I. had 1,800 fewer households living in rental units where the cost was less than $1,000 per month, and gained more than 2,100 households living in accommodations where the cost was more than $1,500 per month.
"My question for the minister is simple," asked Green MLA Karla Bernard. "Where has all our affordable housing gone?"
Speaking to reporters after question period, Lantz described it as an "affordability crisis" affecting all sectors of the rental market, not just affordable housing.
His solution? "Build, build. build."
"And it seems like an insurmountable problem. We have to bring together resources across the private sector, government, non-profits, community organizations. We need to build. It feels like the Manhattan Project."
Lantz said the province needs 2,000 new units built per year just to keep up with population growth, but said "we could probably spend a few years building 3,000-plus to ... meet some of the pent-up demand and get our vacancy rate up to something that's a little more acceptable."
As of last October, P.E.I.'s vacancy rate dropped to 0.8 per cent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
In its throne speech last week, the King government promised "to immediately increase housing starts over the next 24 months to exceed previous record highs." More details on the government's plan for housing are expected with the release of the spring budget.
Minister unaware of food insecurity figure
Opposition Leader Hal Perry spent his portion of question period asking the Minister of Social Development and Seniors Barb Ramsay how government will address the issue of food insecurity among Island children.
CBC reported two weeks ago that 35 per cent of Island children live in homes without a stable source of healthy food, the highest rate in the country.
That figure comes from an analysis from the University of Toronto, using data from Statistics Canada.
But Ramsay told the house she was not familiar with the figure.
"It certainly isn't acceptable," she said, after Perry told her the number. "No one deserves to be hungry, and this government is doing everything they can."
"This is a government that has, obviously, no plan and no knowledge of how many Island families are in need of food," said Perry.
"I would just beg you to, please, get the knowledge that you need on this file in order to make plans because we need a plan to feed these families."