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Sask. government balks at strings attached to new federal infrastructure funding | CBC News



Saskatchewan’s provincial government is accusing Ottawa of overstepping its jurisdiction by tying new federal infrastructure funding to housing requirements the province says don’t meet its “unique needs.”

Canada’s Liberal government says the $6-billion Canada Housing Infrastructure Fund (CHIF), announced Tuesday, is aimed at increasing affordable housing in municipalities across the country.

It will send $1 million directly to cities for “urgent infrastructure needs,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a news release, including “shovel-ready” water and waste systems that cities have said are key to building more housing.

The remaining $5 billion will be for provinces and territories who agree to housing commitments, including allowing more “missing middle” duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and multi-unit buildings.

In a statement Tuesday, the Saskatchewan Party government said it was “difficult to respond” because the province and its municipalities weren’t consulted on the CHIF.

“However, it appears as though the federal government is once again wading into provincial jurisdiction by taking once unrestricted infrastructure funding and tying it to housing requirements,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC Tuesday.

The province said it had “more questions than answers” on the funding, including whether provinces can negotiate separate terms to receive it based on their “distinct needs.”

Ottawa has not released details of how the CHIF will be allocated, but says provinces have until Jan. 1 to reach an agreement with the federal government and territories have until April 1.

WATCH | Canada’s housing minister defends conditions of infrastructure money:

New federal housing infrastructure fund is conditional, says minister

Provinces and territories must commit to building more ‘missing middle’ homes, among other things, in order to access the federal money set aside for them, Housing Minister Sean Fraser tells Power & Politics.

Despite recent concerns from some home builders and real estate agents in Saskatoon that construction is not keeping up with population growth, the province said multi-dwelling housing is not a “high priority” for most communities in Saskatchewan.

“So we do not want to see this new fund come at the expense of infrastructure priorities in Saskatchewan due to our unique needs,” its statement said.

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark disagreed with the province, saying the fast-growing city is facing “a tremendous amount of need” for new housing.

In an interview Wednesday, Clark said that while some of the CHIF’s conditions — like mandating density within 800 metres of public transit corridors — would be challenging for Saskatoon, the funding is more than welcome.

“We will be working with it,” he told CBC. “But it does feel like a new era where funding comes with more and more conditions, and that can make it more challenging to get the money into where it’s needed.”

The province said it has also been negotiating with the federal government over its proposal to tie infrastructure funding from the Community-Building Futures Fund (CBFF), formerly the Gas Tax Fund, to housing targets and expressed concern the CHIF is “circumventing” those talks.

On Wednesday, Minister of Indigenous Services Canada Patty Hajdu said she was disappointed by the government of Saskatchewan’s “lack of enthusiasm” for the CHIF.

“Residents like the ones in this neighbourhood can’t afford to wait, and they can’t afford to wait while provinces, territories and the municipalities bicker,” she told reporters in Regina, where she spoke at a separate housing announcement.

The Saskatchewan Rural Municipalities Association said there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution and it was hopeful the funding would have the flexibility to help smaller communities grappling with aging infrastructure over larger areas.

“The costs associated with building and maintaining bridges, roadways and utilities fall broadly on the shoulders of municipalities,” said president Ray Orb in a statement to CBC on Wednesday.

“Investment in local infrastructure is required to support more extensive investments in the provincial and federal economies.”

A busy street with a large apartment building in development in the background, they say construction is not keeping pace with the population grown in the province.
Some home builders and real estate agents in Saskatoon have said the housing supply is falling behind population growth, but the Saskatchewan government says multi-unit housing is not a priority for most urban centres in the province. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Trudeau vows to go around provinces that don’t agree

Saskatchewan isn’t the only province to be skeptical of the strings attached to the CHIF, one of several pre-budget announcements by Trudeau’s minority government before it tables its next budget on April 16.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has rejected the idea of allowing fourplexes to be built automatically, and the Quebec government has long maintained that any federal money for cities and towns must first go through the province.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the conditions of the funding on Wednesday and said his government will send the money directly to cities and towns if provinces don’t agree.

“If a province decides it doesn’t want to be ambitious on housing that’s their decision. We’ll work with the municipalities within that province that are ambitious,” he said in Toronto at a separate announcement aimed at boosting rental housing.

WATCH | Trudeau says he will work directly with cities if provinces don’t agree: 

Trudeau says funds will flow to cities if provinces don’t back ‘ambitious’ housing plan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he wants to work with provinces on housing — but if a province doesn’t step up ‘with ambition’ on needed infrastructure, Ottawa will work directly with municipalities who want to ramp up housing construction.

Clark said he would prefer to work with both the province and the federal government to receive the funding, but that the City of Saskatoon would pursue it separately if the provincial government doesn’t strike a deal with Ottawa by Jan. 1.

“We need the housing,” he said. “But I do believe this is a challenge that residents and citizens are hoping that all [levels of] government are going to work together to solve.”

The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) welcomed the CHIF announcement Tuesday and said it would be watching for further details to understand the impact of the funding and housing requirements on its members.

“SUMA is pleased to see the federal government’s commitment toward housing, given the substantial need across the country, and its understanding that with growth comes substantial infrastructure development, both above and below the ground,” the organization said in an email to CBC.

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