Last November, Justin Trudeau and the minister for social development, Yves Duclos, declared that they were fulfilling one of the key planks in their 2015 election platform: the delivery of Canada’s “first ever” National Housing Strategy to address the affordable housing shortages that have plagued Canada’s major cities for decades and contributed to a massive growth in the country’s homeless population.
The NHS consists of a rights-based approach to housing, asserting that policy should prioritize “the most vulnerable Canadians including women and children fleeing family violence, Indigenous peoples, seniors, people with disabilities, those dealing with mental health and addiction issues, veterans and young adults.”
So far so good. But there are many potential snags with implementation and the generous time frame laid out by the feds (roughly $40-billion in housing-related spending over 10 years) ensures that the Liberals will have plenty of room to maneuver. This may be a convenient political carrot to dangle in front of left-leaning voters and social housing advocates in the 2019 federal elections, should they be considering support for the NDP or some other more progressive option.
Housing as a human right
First, let’s look at what the NHS gets right.
The NHS recognizes housing is a basic human right. This is fundamental to the whole exercise, as has been emphasized by Leilani Farha, Canadian human rights lawyer and the United Nations’ special rapporteur for housing. Her organization, Canada Without Poverty, which lobbied hard for this breakthrough along with many other civil society and human rights groups, is hopeful that this time the government is finally taking seriously its responsibilities under international law with respect to providing adequate housing for all.
But as the old legal maxim goes, “no right without a remedy.” In other words, there has to be a formal legal (read entrenched in federal statute) mechanism for the enforcement of such a right, something that the NHS stops well short of doing.
Instead the plan calls for a housing advocate who will report to the responsible minister and the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation, the federal agency driving much of the NHS. The advocate will keep the minister and the CMHC informed of the strategy’s progress and attempt to highlight aspects of the strategy that are not meeting the objectives identified by the government.
This approach seems dubious to me. Federal advisory bodies like this tend to be quite easy to ignore in Ottawa. Just ask Mary Dawson, the ethics commissioner investigating the prime minister for violations of the Conflict of Interest Act for accepting paid vacations from a wealthy friend and billionaire. This housing advocate would likely be even less independent, given that they would be appointed by the minister and the CHMS rather than Parliament.
Lack of follow through
The NHS is unapologetically aimed at those with the most acute housing needs; namely low-income Canadians, the homeless, women, Indigenous people, and new Canadians.
Significantly, the government’s NHS also applies an innovative gendered lens (or GBA +) to the social housing problem in Canada. The NHS states rather vaguely that the goal was to ensure that 25 per cent of the projects would be geared towards women and girls. This aspect may need fleshing out, but it does indicate an understanding of the gendered facet of the housing crisis in Canada.
This is all well and good, but there are reasons for skepticism. The government has shown an alarming lack of follow through in its attempts to redress the glaring gaps between Indigenous people and others, whether in housing or child welfare — see the now notorious case of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada against the federal government. Indigenous people would be justified in doubting that the housing file will somehow be any different.
Other advocacy groups have expressed concerns on behalf of their communities. Some noted that the way that the NHS is worded betrays a lack of understanding with respect to homelessness. For instance, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness questioned why the NHS made a commitment to cut “chronic homelessness” by 50 per cent over the next decade, when this represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scale of the homeless crisis in Canada. A much larger element of the homeless population, including those who are precariously housed or transient, are excluded from that category.
One of the biggest pillars of the federal investment was the $4 billion “Canadian Housing Benefit” designed to provide direct financial and portable housing benefits to individuals, mostly tenants, struggling to pay the rent. For it to be implemented throughout the country, the provinces and territories would have to buy in to the program and match the government’s investment by roughly half.
Faulty assumptions and other challenges
Those who live in Quebec, a province that maintains its own social housing agency, will see the potential flaw of depending on a top-down federal program in a loosely affiliated federation where the Constitution and courts have historically given provinces jurisdiction over regulating housing markets and home ownership. In fact, Quebec never actively participated in any of the discussions surrounding the development of the NHS and will likely make its standard objection to federal interference in their affairs, while at the same time demanding its fair share of the money being doled out by the feds in housing.
That is not by any stretch the only challenge the benefit will face in order to be effectively carried out by provinces and territories and, more importantly, municipalities (though they are barely touched on by the NHS).
The NHS makes two unfounded and inaccurate assumptions about the rental market that threaten to undermine the positive effects of its Canadian Housing Benefit even before the subsidies are distributed.
The first concerns the lack of rental units available in most major Canadian cities, especially Vancouver and Toronto. With vacancy rates extremely low in some places, even fully employed professionals with decent salaries complain about the shortage of available apartments in their neighbourhoods. This is due in part to the over-condo-ization of the core of these cities.
The other disheartening piece of analysis in the NHS is the definition of affordability and the preference for the term “affordable” housing as opposed to the term “social housing.” With rents soaring out of control in most major cities, the CMHS definition of affordable being 80 per cent of the median rental price in a given housing market is at best naïve and at worst dishonest. Consider that a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver now rents for an average of $2,210 per month.
If we do the math, this means that, according to the government’s criteria, an apartment renting for $1,547 a month in Vancouver would be deemed “affordable” — something that even most people with a reasonable income would find perverse.
I’m all for the portability of benefits that rent-geared-to-income provides by allowing the recipient to choose where they want to live, but when you factor in low vacancy rates, lack of rental housing being developed by the real-estate industry, and the reality of skyrocketing rents in major cities that have no rules regarding increases, the need for more dedicated purpose-built social housing becomes evident.
Sneers from right-wing pundits: a good sign
Social housing has the advantage of being designed with the specific needs of the occupant in mind, rather than letting the market decide whether a person’s disability, immigration status, gender, or ethnicity should be relevant considerations in how housing should be built and for whom.
As one might expect, this focus on housing poor Canadians drew sneers from some pundits on the right who continue to prize the middle-class dream of home ownership over the basic rights of all Canadians to access shelter (despite the fact that the plan actually devotes a whole chapter to the issue).
Perhaps this criticism is a good indication that the NHS has put Ottawa on the right path to addressing the housing and homelessness crisis in Canada, after years of washing its hands of both.