Letter to the Minister of National Defence: Home Equity Assistance (HEA) Program

26 February 2016

 

The Hon. Harjit S. Sajjan, PC, OMM, MSM, CD, MP
Minister of National Defence
National Defence Headquarters
Major-General George R. Pearkes Building
101 Colonel By Drive
13th Floor, North Tower
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0K2

 

Dear Minister Sajjan:

I am writing to you today about the Home Equity Assistance (HEA) Program.

As you know, the wider CAF Integrated Relocation Program (IRP) has been under review for the past seven years. Based on the complaints and feedback we receive directly from CAF members and family members from across the country, the IRP is largest single source of expressed frustration that we encounter from defence community constituents.

My understanding is that the IRP review now sits somewhere between DND and the Treasury Board Secretariat and has done so for the past year. My predecessor and I have written to 3 Defence Ministers and 3 Chiefs of Defence Staff about the need to update and modernize the IRP and HEA programs. Of note, there have been unilateral changes made to the IRP during the review phase, changes that are widely perceived by CAF members as ‘reductions’ or changes that financially disadvantage them and their families. These changes include the ending of mortgage-penalty coverage (with no notice and no grandfathering) and changing the last Intended Place of Residence move upon retirement to a minimum 40km distance.

With regards to the HEA program, which has been subject to two separate court actions, I am very concerned that the housing market situation in Alberta will result in a large number of significant real estate losses for those members who are forced to move this coming posting season. The economic impact of falling oil prices in Alberta is well documented.

Based on the data we have reviewed for 2008-2014, some 540 members sought relief through the HEA Program. Real estate losses ranged from several thousand dollars up to 140K. The majority of losses fell within the 5K and 50K range.  However, some 283 members experienced losses greater than 15K. In all but four cases, reimbursement was limited to 15K for these individuals under the HEA.

In theory the HEA covers 100 percent of real estate losses in places designated as a depressed (20 percent reduction) market area by the Treasury Board Secretariat. In practice, only four members have received this benefit since 2008.

Although an excellent program, HEA was set up in the 1990s when average house prices were three times cheaper than the current average. In short, the 15K reimbursement limit no longer offsets the type of losses being incurred by the majority of CAF members seeking relief through the program.

Members also complain to my Office that the HEA Directive is misleading. The 100 percent reimbursement provision should be clearly noted as being a very rare “exception.”  

Members also complain about a lack of transparency in the way the HEA decision process is made from the individual member’s perspective. There is also a lack of clarity in the terminology critical to the HEA benefit. How is a “housing market” and “community” defined and what are the parameters? How is a market assessed for “depressed market”?

The HEA policy should be written in plain language for non-lawyers and non-accountants. As outlined in my Office’s 2013 report into the health and well-being of CAF families, On the Homefront, postings represent the single biggest source of stress for military families.

Given the frustration I routinely encounter about HEA during almost all townhall meetings I hold at bases with CAF personnel and families I took the step of engaging a contractor last year to look into the HEA Program and alternative models that may more effectively meet the needs of CAF members who experience real estate losses through no fault of their own. The report was finalized in October 2015 during the election period. I have spoken to departmental officials about the findings but have not shared the report until now. I submit the report to you as it may provide useful information for consideration during policy discussions on the HEA Program.

On a final point, I would note that since the ‘strategic review’ benefit changes were made on 1 September 2012, a CAF member is now less compensated for their relocation move compared to their RCMP and public service counterparts. 

I am available to discuss any of the above with either you or your staff.

Sincerely,

 

Gary Walbourne

Ombudsman

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