Building Health: Canada’s opportunity to improve housing affordability

Decent, safe, and affordable housing is an absolute foundation for healthy lives. Research has shown the critical links between housing and health. Without appropriate and secure housing, our health suffers, our mental health deteriorates, we are more stressed. Without affordable housing we may need to skip on food or medications in order to pay the rent. Every single person requires affordable housing in order to be healthy, and yet so many struggle to find decent housing in Canada, one of the richest countries in the world.

In order to have a thriving population, individuals, businesses, and government must address the challenges head on. In our continued blog series, the Wellesley Institute and Broadbent Institute present three ways the new Parliament could improve housing affordability.

Improving everyday affordability for Canadians was repeatedly found to be one of the highest priorities for voters in the federal election. It is hardly surprising that housing affordability is top of mind for Canadians. Both rents and mortgages are consistently the single largest expense for households. Average middle-income families spend more on housing than they do on food, clothing, and recreation combined. On top of this, housing costs have been increasing much faster than household incomes, and the number of reasonably affordable homes has been dropping.

In 2017, the Canadian government announced the National Housing Strategy (NHS) and pledged to re-establish federal leadership on affordable housing. But two years into the strategy, experts have critiqued the inadequate spending levels and the low number of affordable units being built. Now that the election has concluded with a Liberal minority government, the future of the National Housing Strategy will depend on the support of one of the other parties. With three of the five parties in Parliament having expressed support for the continuation of the NHS during the federal election, it’s time to explore the new opportunities to improve housing affordability across Canada.

Opportunity to Build

Building more affordable housing is the classic way to improve affordability for those most in need. Affordable rental units, non-profit, public and co-op social housing has been shown to be a long-term cost-effective way of improving affordability. In turn, this improves the well-being and health of low-income tenants. Tenants with permanently affordable rents can devote more of their limited incomes to essentials that promote health, such as healthy food and medication. Building social rental housing also benefits tenants not directly living in the housing by taking the pressure off of our overheated rental markets and helping to moderate market rents.

We have done something similar to this before. Up until the mid-1990s, 20,000 non-profit and co-op housing units were built each year in Canada, a time when Canada’s GDP and population were both lower than they are now. There is also precedent for minority governments to be a period of opportunity where significant investments get put into affordable housing. Two recent examples of this are the Martin-Layton housing trusts of 2005, and the Harper stimulus of 2009, both of which invested heavily in affordable housing.

We can meet in the middle. During the election, the Liberals platform included 10,000 new affordable units a year for 10 years, while the NDP platform included 50,000 units a year over the same time frame. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has recently called on the federal government to increase funding to build an equivalent of 23,000 social and affordable homes over 10 years. Our new Parliament is an opportunity to come to an agreement on an ambitious new building program that parties agree should be a priority.

Opportunity for Housing Benefits

Housing benefits paid to families struggling with high housing costs are an important part of the solution to the affordability crisis as an interim measure to ease housing costs . An increasing number of people face housing costs that exceed their affordability threshold (shelter costs over 30 per cent of income). This forces cutbacks on other necessities such as healthy food and medications. Housing benefits can alleviate these shortages, be rolled out quickly and be tailored to provide the right level of support.

Increase benefits. The Liberals’ National Housing Strategy plans to harness the power of housing benefits with the Canada Housing Benefit. This benefit is set to begin rolling out in April 2020. However, it is unclear if benefit levels will be high enough to make a significant difference for families struggling in Canada’s city regions, where market rents have been increasing fast. The Housing Benefit will be dependent on provincial cost-matching, potentially leaving hundreds of thousands of eligible Canadians in need and unable to receive this benefit.

Higher, faster, more direct. A well-designed and financed housing benefit that reaches those in need and fast, can be one of the key opportunities for improving housing affordability for Canadians. It will be important that the housing benefit is paid directly to tenants, operated through the tax system, and is large enough to assist those in need.

Opportunity to Reframe our Housing System

Our housing system is currently structured to appeal to private investors, to favour homeowners over renters, and to view housing as an investment vehicle. Now is an opportunity to reframe what ‘housing’ means and bring it back to its foundation – a place for people to live, to grow up, to feel safe.

A rights-based approach to housing. The message that housing is a human right was brought to Toronto City Council in 2019 by Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. A few months later, it was passed in legislation by the federal government. Both Toronto City Council and the federal government have acknowledged housing as a human right, but a rights framework needs to go further than simply putting it into law. It requires mechanisms to ensure that this right can be actualized — particularly by those who need it the most.

Implement a rights framework through policy. Farha’s recommendations include: creating pathways for people requiring advocacy; and legal and/or justice remedies in order to address deep-seated housing challenges. The newly created Federal Housing Advocate could integrate these elements, once implemented in 2020. Ultimately for a rights-based approach to be put into action, building more affordable housing is required.

Supply housing for the public good. Rather than a continuation of policies that benefit speculators and treat housing as a commodity, we need to focus on supplying housing directly for working and middle-class Canadians. Raising the capital gains tax as well as implementing a foreign buyers tax are two measures that remove the incentive for profit making from housing and re-center its original purpose.

Building a healthy and thriving Canadian population requires addressing Canada’s housing affordability crisis. Housing stability, quality, safety, and affordability all affect health outcomes. Adequate financial investments and ambition are required to achieve this. This minority Parliament serves as an opportunity for the government to work with opposition parties and housing experts who support their commitment to delivering a meaningful national housing program — one that would lay the foundation for a healthy population and responsive housing market for decades to come. SOURCE

Inside the Green party’s push for new housing policy

The Greens have released a discussion paper on affordable housing. TVO.org speaks with leader Mike Schreiner about trying to find comprehensive solutions for complex problems

Ontario Green party leader Mike Shriener

Green leader Mike Schreiner represents the Guelph riding. (Fred Lum/CP)

You can’t be a political party in Ontario, it seems, without having some kind of meaty housing policy. And the Greens, now, are no exception. At its annual convention this past weekend, in Scarborough, the Green Party of Ontario introduced a discussion paper for its members to chew over in coming months as the party develops a comprehensive housing plan. Last week, ahead of the convention, TVO.org spoke with Green leader and Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner about the discussion paper, what’s up for debate, and what’s off the table as the party moves forward.

 TVO.org: How many prior assumptions are you bringing to this discussion? You are the party leader, but the discussion paper doesn’t dictate your views to the party.

Mike Schreiner: No, this is a discussion paper to engage a wide variety of stakeholders in a really comprehensive solution to unlock affordable housing in Ontario. I think one of the concerns I’ve had is that a lot of the discussion has been too narrow. Things like, “If we just open the Greenbelt for development and increase housing supply, we’re going to solve the problem” or “If we impose rent control, we’re going to solve the problem.” But I think it’s much more complex and needs a more comprehensive solution than that. And I think one of the roles the Green party can play, that I can play as an independent MPP, is to bring a more non-partisan perspective and one that looks at best practices around the country and around the world.

TVO.org: The way these discussions are usually framed involves people saying things like “nothing is off the table,” but you mentioned the Greenbelt, so I’ll ask: I’m assuming the Green party is not going to support opening up the Greenbelt?

Schreiner: Oh, yeah, there are certain things that are not on the table for us — I want to be really clear about that. For me, it’s about how we unlock affordable housing in a way that protects the people and places we love. One of the concerns I have is, if we continue to pave over the Earth’s ability to absorb excess water, for example, we’re going to just escalate the risks associated with flooding, especially as we address the climate crisis. So one of the motivations for me in doing this is to look at a lot of the options out there that will allow us to increase the amount of affordability in the housing market without opening the Greenbelt, without threatening prime farmland, without paving over our wetlands and green space. But also without the solution being, I think, a false choice between single-family-detached urban sprawl and 80-storey towers. There are a lot of other options in between, and, if you look around the world, there are a lot of creative solutions being implemented.

For me, the question is, what can we learn from around the world and apply to Ontario and the distinctive characteristics of our communities?

TVO.org: When we talk about housing as an environmental issue, we tend to talk about increasing density, making neighbourhoods more transit-compatible, and hoping for that virtuous cycle that sees people drive less and take transit or bike or walk more. But there’s also resistance to change in a lot of neighbourhoods. What do you think the province’s role is here?

Schreiner: I think the province’s role is in making sure that we zone neighbourhoods appropriately for mixed use, that we remove restrictions for things like laneway housing, secondary suites, triplex, duplex-type buildings. And, you know, I often think there’s an education and public-engagement role the province can play as well. Obviously, you’re not going to alleviate everyone’s concerns about changing the character of neighbourhoods, but I think there are ways in which we can preserve the character of neighbourhoods if we can get past the discussion where it’s either single-family detached homes or a massive tower. We can densify our cities at a human scale and do it in a way that maintains the character of neighbourhoods.

TVO.org: In the United States, a number of state legislatures have simply taken powers away from municipalities on the grounds that they were not permitting enough housing to be built. What’s your perspective on that? What’s the proper role for local municipalities?

Schreiner: The role the province should play is to establish the rules of the game, the density targets, issues around urban-boundary expansion. But I think its important to allow municipalities some flexibility to determine how they’ll best meet those criteria within their own communities and not have everything dictated from Queen’s Park. So I wouldn’t go as far as that. We did include some examples of the West Coast in the discussion paper, in part so that people would just know what approaches other places are taking.

TVO.org: The question of housing is bigger than owning or even renting. You’ve got a section in the paper about supportive housing and shelters. In government, there’s often a temptation to try to find clever ways to avoid spending more money, but is that really an option here?

Schreiner: Sometimes, the discussion is too focused on, let’s say, young middle-class families who are trying to access homeownership — without thinking about other ways that there are affordability barriers. And, sometimes, we say “affordable housing,” and people immediately think we’re talking about people who are un-housed. To me, an important part of the solution, and an important contribution we can make, is that housing is really a continuum. So if you have affordable opportunities for seniors, for example — to either downsize out of their family home into an affordable retirement community, or maybe something like co-housing — then you open up more homes for people who are in the years when they’re having children and need more space.

So there are trickle-down effects all through the continuum if you can unlock that. I’ve heard statistics that there’s as many as 40,000 homes available if we can unlock bottlenecks in that continuum. And I think that we also need to look at vacation homes and Airbnb and the pressure those are putting on housing, taking units out of the market. Speculation, vacant units, people just purchasing homes or condos and hanging on to them as investments. There’s no single silver-bullet solution.

TVO.org: I’m hearing you talk about speculation, and there’s a section in the discussion paper about “housing being used as a bank.” The Green party hasn’t historically been a doctrinaire left-wing party that’s totally opposed to capitalism. Is this an area in which you see an argument for more government?

Schreiner: I think there are two areas where government involvement is critically important. One of those, and it’s a point you made earlier and I should have answered your question better: we do need more government money going into the system. Since governments really pulled back from co-op and social housing, we’ve seen the affordability challenges grow, and I think we are going to need to have more government investment. That being said, big chunks of our discussion paper talk about “how do we create incentives for the private sector to be involved in affordability solutions?” So we’re not saying government has all the answers, but we are going to need government investment in some areas, particularly around housing the most vulnerable. I think the other way in which government involvement is important is just using taxing powers to reduce speculation and deal with vacancy issues. I think the previous government made some positive steps with the foreign-buyers tax; my perspective is if we’re going to address speculation, let’s not limit it to foreign buyers who are speculating in the market. Let’s look at anyone speculating in the housing market. SOURCE

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Toronto city council votes against declaring homelessness crisis an emergency, now what?

Last week, Toronto Mayor Tory and Toronto City Council showed their impotence to deal with one of the most severe social welfare disasters in Toronto’s history — homelessness. 

The homelessness emergency affects over 8,000 people. Over 1,000 people are living in what can only be compared to refugee camp conditions: respite sites including a disaster dome, overnight drop-ins, and basements of churches and synagogues.

The housing emergency affects close to 200,000 people: 181,000 people are on the social housing wait list and another 16,000 await supportive housing. Essentially neither is being built.

In a debate over whether to declare Toronto’s housing and homelessness crisis an emergency, the directors of Toronto’s emergency management and legal services offices dispassionately addressed language in the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, including what entails an “emergency.” Equally dispassionate were the General Manager of Shelter, Support and Housing and the Medical Officer of Health.

Councillor Gord Perks, who brought forth the motion last week with Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, attempted to give staff an opening, suggesting that causes out of the city’s control, such as deregulation, could cause a disaster. After all, homelessness and the housing crisis is the direct result of federal and provincial abandonment. MORE

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