A Discussion with Dr. Maroine Bendaoud
By: Nick Falvo
Dr. Maroine Bendaoud recently completed his PhD thesis at the University of Montreal. His focus was social housing in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec during the 1975-2015 period. Now a Postdoctoral Fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton, he recently agreed to answer some questions I put to him.
What follows is a modified transcript of our recent conversation.
NF: How would you explain what your thesis was about?
MB: The thesis examines the policy similarity of low-income housing policy in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. The similarities are particularly striking after the federal government’s disengagement from the low-income housing domain in the mid-1990s. In a nutshell, my research question was: How and why did the provinces decide to design similar housing policies? To answer it, I’ve done extensive research in provincial archives and did interviews with roughly 60 housing experts, inside and outside government.
NF: What surprised you?
MB: A key episode in Canadian social housing was the withdrawal of the federal government from housing in the mid-1990s; this resulted in the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation terminating funding for new social housing units. Governments led by left-of-centre political parties in British Columbia and Quebec continued to build new units with their own funding. The ‘made in BC’ and ‘made in Quebec’ programs developed in the second half of the 1990s, creating hundreds of units per year in these two provinces. However, the Alberta government, led by Premier Ralph Klein (and known for its conservative politics) refused to build new units. Instead, the Alberta government only provided funding for about 190 new rent supplement units per year which was very low as compared to British Columbia and Quebec. That being said, the Klein government did restore capital funding for affordable housing in the early 2000s. In fact, the production of units eventually picked up under the leadership of Ed Stelmach, after a housing crisis stirred the province in the second half of the 2000s.
“The neglect of the housing file eventually caught up with the Alberta government in the mid-2000s.”
NF: Why do your thesis results matter for Alberta?
MB: If the Government of Alberta (GoA) is serious about housing, it might wish to follow the example of other provinces. After doing my fieldwork in Alberta, I’ve realized that Alberta has simply lacked political will for many years; indeed, the administrative capacity and knowledge is already in place. The GoA shouldn’t wait for another housing crisis like the one in the mid-2000s before taking action. Rather, it should draw a lesson from that experience to implement lasting housing programs that prevent crisis, rather than one-time investments that react to crisis.
NF: What would you like to see the Government of Alberta do differently?
MB: When compared to other provinces, I believe the Alberta government should offer stronger support to smaller, independent non-profit housing providers, especially in rural areas. This point was also highlighted by the Alberta Affordable Housing Task Force in 2007. Such support would go beyond providing capital subsidies and would take the form of assistance from the time of grant application to the delivery of units, property management, etc. Non-profit groups could become more professionalized and more ‘entrepreneurial’ with the help of government assistance. And of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the GoA stop supporting larger providers (such as Calgary Housing and Capital Region Housing Corporation). In fact, I believe the GoA should be more proactive in supporting all affordable housing providers.
NF: During much of the 1975-2015 period, Alberta was a relatively wealthy province. To what extent did it draw on that wealth to build social housing?
MB: These numbers would be surprising today, but it must be remembered that the former Alberta Housing Corporation built thousands of units per year (community housing, self-contained housing and lodges) in the early 1980s. The funding of new units was also very strong in the late 1970s. However, the boom and bust economy so characteristic of Alberta was severely affected by the 1980s oil glut. The province did not have as much oil revenues to invest in social housing, so funding for new units dropped off starting in 1983. Then, in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, the province was run by the administration of Premier Ralph Klein, which wasn’t keen to subsidize affordable housing. The Klein government mostly waited until new federal money was injected by Ottawa—and even then, its interventions were modest compared to Quebec and British Columbia. The neglect of the housing file eventually caught up with the Alberta government in the mid-2000s. The housing crisis was all up in the news. Funding programs or streams were made available to build new units in the years after using a partnership approach; for example, a housing allowance program was developed as well as the Homeless and Eviction Prevention Fund. Unfortunately, not all these programs became permanent.
NF: From your thesis results, would you suggest that the Alberta government did some good things during the 1975-2015 period?
MB: The GoA did many good things, but I would say that the one initiative which makes it stand out among Canadian provinces is probably the lodge program. Originating in the late 1950s, lodges were innovative for the time. Alberta should be proud of having developed such a housing program. Lodges were a sort of middle option between homes for the aged and nursing homes, serving seniors with a minor loss of autonomy. They were designed for Alberta’s elderly citizens who no longer wanted to maintain an independent household, yet who did not require day-to-day medical supervision. Seniors are provided with housekeeping services, meals, and recreational facilities to create a homelike atmosphere and to promote social interaction. Silvera for Seniors (in Calgary) and GEF Seniors Housing (in Edmonton) are examples of organizations operating lodges.
In Sum. Dr. Bendaoud’s PhD thesis serves an important contribution to our collective understanding of Canadian housing policy. And in Calgary, it can help us understand why there was such a sharp rise in homelessness beginning in the mid-1990s. Dr. Bendaoud can be reached at email@example.com.
Dr. Bendaoud’s full PhD thesis (availability in French only) can be downloaded here:
Thèse M Bendaoud
For a PDF version of the present blog post, please click here: Thesis by Dr Maroine Bendaoud Social Housing BC AB QC