By Jeff Morrison on March 23, 2017
The link between access to safe, affordable, sustainable housing and poverty alleviation is clear.
Without access to decent housing, it is extremely difficult to pursue education, maintain employment, or raise a family. Safe, affordable housing allows individuals and families to work, which helps to ensure that they can break the bonds of poverty.
However, housing systems that provide access to safe and affordable housing are under threat. During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, long-term Operating Agreements were put in place between governments and housing providers. Housing providers use them to provide rent-geared-to-income housing units to low-income Canadians. They are starting to expire. Now, it's uncertain whether housing providers can maintain these units at a subsidized level.
Over the past two decades, the federal government has dramatically reduced its support to expand the capacity of the social housing sector. This despite the fact that demand and waiting lists have grown. There have been sporadic programs over the past 15 to 20 years impacting social housing. But the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) estimates that there are approximately 100,000 housing units that were not built over the past 20 years due to changing government policy.
There has also been insufficient maintenance for housing units built through these Operating Agreements. As these buildings age, they require significant rehabilitation work. In January 2017, Toronto Community Housing reported that they had already closed 425 subsidized units because of lack of funds to properly rehabilitate them.
Given these and other challenges facing the housing system, particularly housing for low-income Canadians, CHRA has long called for the development of a National Housing Strategy. Under a strategy, housing policy would no longer be addressed in a “band-aid” policy fashion. Instead it would be dealt with in a long-term and holistic way. CHRA was very pleased that, in June 2016, the federal government confirmed a consultation on a National Housing Strategy. We expect them to release the strategy at some point in Spring 2017. If done right, this strategy holds the promise to address the housing needs of low-income Canadians for decades to come.
At the time of writing, we do not yet know the details of this strategy. But CHRA has put forth a comprehensive set of recommendations designed to ensure that it is focused on addressing the needs of Canada’s most vulnerable populations. These recommendations fall into the following four themes:
- Strengthen the role of housing as a social good: Introduce measures to prevent and eliminate homelessness, invest in supportive housing, and introduce a dedicated rentgeared- to-income subsidy. • Increase and better maintain social housing supply: Introduce a dedicated housing financing authority to provide loans and grants for sector growth and rehabilitation, make federal surplus land available for social housing, and incentivize the construction of new social and rental housing capacity.
- Create a distinct urban and rural Indigenous Housing Strategy: Given the unique housing needs of urban and rural Indigenous people, create a unique Indigenous Housing Strategy that dedicates funds for urban and rural Indigenous providers, increases federal support to Indigenous service organizations, and compliments the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.
- Put in place a measurable implementation plan: A strategy without an implementation plan is meaningless. An implementation plan should include timeframes, national indicators, and a national research hub that can measure and report on progress.
Once the federal government releases the strategy, there will remain a great deal of work in order to properly implement the strategy. It will be incumbent on all of us to ensure that within the implementation plan, we do not lose the overall objective of providing access to safe, affordable housing to Canada’s most vulnerable populations.
Poverty alleviation is not a short-term goal. But with the right policies, investment decisions, and leadership, we can take a strong step towards ensuring that housing does not contribute to the problem, but rather plays a key role in fixing it.
Dignity for All’s model anti-poverty plan calls for a National Housing Strategy and at least $2 billion/year in new funding for housing initiatives. Read the plan at cpj.ca/FedPlan.
Jeff Morrison is executive director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, the national association representing the interests of the social and affordable housing sector in Canada.