Toronto’s housing crisis is well documented: the skyrocketing and prohibitive cost of rent, the lack of funding for repairs to community housing structures, and the growing wait list for affordable housing are just a few of the issues that have received media attention in the past year.
The facts are equally grim across the country: one in four Canadians spends more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, and an estimated 733,275 low-income Canadians are in extreme housing need, spending more than 50 per cent of their income on housing. Over 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year, and some 365,000 households are at risk of rent increases or eviction as a result of the end of operating agreements.
With a federal election on the horizon, it is worth considering role the federal government can and should play in addressing the housing crisis.
How did we get here?
Not-for-profit and community housing in Canada took off in the 1970s. Between 1973 and 1985, social housing was established by setting rents to cover operating costs, with rent supplements being stacked onto some homes in social housing projects in order to include low-income households. The Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation (CMHC) was a key player in the creation of social housing projects: CMHC signed an “operating agreement” with the housing provider, and each project received a loan guaranteed by CMHC for the term of the operating agreement to finance the mortgage.
In 1993, the Liberal government terminated federal funding for any new operating agreements. The 1996 federal budget confirmed that the Canadian government would be transferring responsibility for social housing programs to the provinces, with the anticipated result of “simpler administration and improved service to Canadians.” As others have noted, the decision to download responsibility for housing to the provinces and municipalities was a unilateral policy move by the federal government.
Since then, the federal government has enacted various temporary initiatives, the most recent of which — the Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH)– is being funded through federal-provincial-territorial agreements. In monetary terms, however, there has been a significant drop: federal spending on the IAH is only $253 million annually (the same as it was in 2008), as compared to $1.6 billion currently spent annually for social housing. As the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) has pointed out, as operating agreements expire, federal investment in social housing will decline to just $81 million in 2031, and $0 in 2040.
While it was anticipated that rental revenues would cover operating costs upon the expiry of operating agreements, this has not played out as expected, and a number of social housing projects are now at risk.
Election day is scheduled for October 19, 2015. Federal commitment to a national housing strategy is crucial to address issues of affordability and homelessness. Where does each party stand?
In their April 2015 budget, the Harper government stated that it intended to invest $1.7 billion annually to support the 530,000 families dependent upon social housing support, leading some to believe that they had committed to sustaining current funding levels for social housing. However, a subsequent joint statement issued by the CHRA and Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHFC) on May 7, 2015 revealed that the government’s position had not changed, meaning that federal funding would decrease incrementally until $0 was being contributed by 2040. When pressed by NDP Housing Critic Marjolaine Boutin-Sweethas during question period, Conservative MP Scott Armstrong denied that his party had misrepresented their position in the budget.
Notably, the Conservative Party was the only party that did not offer a housing plan at the recent conference hosted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). That the Harper government has not demonstrated a commitment to solving the housing crisis should come as no surprise. While political expediency and pragmatism have led the Harper government to increase their contributions to housing in the past, the present crisis calls for a sound national housing strategy with discrete objectives.
Speaking at the FCM, Justin Trudeau promised a “renewed federal role in housing.” Trinity-Spadina MP Adam Vaughan, who also attended the FCM, has been a vociferous advocate of the need for a national housing strategy. It is unclear whether a Liberal government would reinstate support for operating agreements that are due to expire. However, it is worth noting that the termination of operating agreements happened under the watch of a Liberal government, suggesting that political expediency may play a role in the party’s policy development as it does for the Conservatives. A housing strategy is critical to ensure that cost-cutting measures — like the one taken by the government in 1993 — are not directed at housing.
In early 2013, the NDP introduced Bill C-300, which called for a strategy to ensure that citizens were guaranteed adequate, affordable and accessible housing. The bill did not pass.
The NDP has been highly critical of what they have termed the Conservatives’ “abandonment” of their social housing responsibilities. NDP Housing Critic Marjolaine Boutin-Sweethas called for renewed federal commitment to social housing agreements, and party leader Tom Mulcair has confirmed that an NDP government would work with CMHC on an income tax incentive that would allow people investing in rental housing units to avoid capital gains taxes if they put money back into more “affordable” rental housing investments.
The Green Party
The Green Party’s platform was spelled out in a recent press release: in addition to advocating for the federal government to “get back in the business of social housing,” the press release calls for innovative, collaborative approaches at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. It makes specific mention of the Housing First Outreach initiative whereby homeless individuals are provided with a heavily subsidized home as an example of an innovative, successful approach to resolving the housing crisis. The Green Party also advocates for expanding the mandate of CMHC to include responsibility for affordable, non-market, co-operative housing — a return to the role that it had before 1993.
Going forward and getting ready
Last year, we wrote about the Court of Appeal’s decision in Tanudjaja — a ruling that disappointed housing activists in its finding that the right to housing was not a right guaranteed under the Charter. That case is presently under leave for appeal to the Supreme Court. Absent a ruling guaranteeing a right to shelter, it will fall to housing advocates and concerned members of the public to ensure that housing is a priority in the upcoming election campaign. Organizations such as the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, with their blog Homeless Hub, the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, and campaigns like the 20,000 Homes Campaign offer a range of resources to communicate the importance of this issue to federal MPs and parties.