By Katie Hyslop, TheTyee.ca August 12, 2012
Illustration by April Alayon for The Tyee Solutions Society.
F-35 Could Explode Harper's Plans
Demands for new cost assessments could blow roof off Conservatives' military spending agenda.
Get Ready to Party Like a Fighter Pilot
Two years ago the federal government announced its intent to purchase 65 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft for the Canadian military. The Department of National Defense justified the $9-billion expense as part of the Conservative government's plan to renew military infrastructure, and "defend against the threats of the 21st century at home."
In 2011 Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page took another look at the purchase, and put the lifetime cost of the planes at over $29 billion -- about $450 million per plane, including the upgrades and maintenance required over a 30-year period. That's in 2009 numbers, though, meaning the total in 2012 dollars is $475 million.
It may go higher. A contract outlining a set fee for the planes has yet to be signed. And Page reported significant delays in the planes' production, increasing costs that meant prices could be subject to change. The government claims Page's estimate is inflated, but has handed responsibility for the acquisition over to the Department of Public Works and Government Services from the Department of Defense. A House of Commons committee is now re-analyzing the procurement numbers and hopes to reveal a new official cost in the fall.
But let's take the Parliament's Budget Officer, a man enlisted for his ability to understand numbers, at his word: let's say one F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter will cost Canadians $475 million.
We want our Canadian pilots to be well equipped (although there's a lively debate over whether the single-engine F-35 meets that test in the Canadian arctic). But so often we hear that just a little money would keep the lights on in this community service or that social program. Three million Canadians live below the low-income cut-off line. As many more again are at risk of being without shelter.
That prompted us to wonder: What if we only bought 64 planes instead of 65? What if we targeted the other $475 million at some of the harms not just threatening but often defeating millions of Canadians, "in the 21st century at home?" What other kinds of security could the price of a single jet plane buy?
We asked economists, anti-poverty organizations, and social policy thinkers for a wish list of what $475 million could buy in the way of programs to help neutralize the risk of low-income Canadians breaching our social safety net and falling into homelessness and a life of poverty. Here's just a sampling of what that money, deployed for civilian instead of military causes, could afford.
A room of one's own
In 2010, urban health think tank the Wellesley Institute estimated that 3.1 million Canadian households were "housing insecure," meaning they spent more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter. At the same time, about 300,000 people were visibly homeless at least once that year, while as many as 900,000 were "hidden" homeless: staying with friends or family, sleeping on couches.
Megan Yarema, director of education and outreach with advocacy group Canada Without Poverty, estimates that for an extra $2 billion the federal government could create or repair enough social housing to give secure accommodation to every Canadian. But that would also mean foregoing four new planes. So how much housing could the $475 million price of a single plane buy?
Spread across the country, perhaps not a great deal. According to the Wellesley Institute, a new unit of social housing in Canada would cost on average $180,000. Spread across 10 provinces and three territories, $475 million would only cover 203 units of housing each, whereas B.C. alone needs 2,000 new units of social housing right now to meet needs.
That average price doesn't take into account larger units for families with more than one or two kids, either. Bigger units would cost more, bringing the total number of people helped below 150 -- or a few more "if cities already had land,” Yarema says, "as that would bring down the cost."
Targeted in one place, however, $475 million could do rather more. It might, for example: put a roof over the head of every homeless person in Victoria, with money to spare to operate its supportive housing for almost 27 years; provide 4,750 new social housing units for employable homeless in Alberta, a province that needs 8,000 new affordable housing units to end homelessness. The same $475 million could build 3,167 new houses on Aboriginal reserves, which sounds like a lot but would in fact address only four per cent of the identified housing need there.
Even a small investment in housing can make a difference though. The Community Social Planning Council estimates that each new unit of social housing in B.C. will cost $200,000 to build. But the federal government has all but retired its social housing program, spending less and less over the past 20 years, while the B.C. government has been notoriously slow in breaking ground on new social housing.
This leaves non-profits searching for ways to secure housing for those in need. But without equity of their own, borrowing to build social housing means mortgage payments that may be too high for affordable rental rates. Alice Sundberg of Vibrant Surrey Poverty Reduction Society says if the federal government put $475 million into providing non-profits with capital grants of $50,000 per unit for housing -- and the provincial government matched it -- non-profits could leverage the support to build 9,500 new units.
"You'll have 50 per cent of the equity that you'll need for your units," Sundberg told The Tyee Solutions Society.
"What governments are really trying to avoid are these long-term commitments to pay a (rental) subsidy for a term of the mortgage. So if they can instead provide a capital grant, it allows the society to leverage more dollars and still provide affordable rent. Then there's no further requirement of the government to be involved."
Put that in context: one foregone fighter jet could end housing insecurity for almost 70 per cent of the 13,500 families and individuals on BC Housing's wait list -- more than 1,000 of them listed as a priority because of homelessness, medical need or other emergency situations.
And Sundeberg isn't talking about people with addiction or mental health issues that require extra support, like life skills training, 24-hour onsite staff or meal programs. Rather, she says, "it's [housing for] people who can live in the community. Many of them are working poor," who can't afford clean and safe shelter suitable for their individual or families' needs.