(ENG) A 3-point strategy for better housing


A 3-point strategy for better housing

Oct 28, 2007

Canadians really didn’t need a United Nations envoy to tour the country and announce that Canada urgently needs to tackle its affordable housing crisis. The signs of it are everywhere, from homeless beggars on the streets of Canada’s major cities to overcrowded shelters and rotting public housing buildings.

But the visit last week by Miloon Kothari, the UN’s special rapporteur on adequate housing, did shine a spotlight on the shocking lack of affordable housing options in a country as rich as Canada. Successive federal and provincial governments have pledged to address the problem, but all have fallen far short of meeting the growing demand for reasonably priced housing for low-income families and individuals.

What is lacking is a co-ordinated federal-provincial housing strategy, in effect a national plan that would ensure every Canadian has a decent place to call home.

Such a blueprint must take a three-pronged approach: new construction of affordable homes, rent subsidies and renovation of existing homes.

The three areas need to be tackled together, not in isolation or in any prescribed order. Rather, a holistic approach is best suited to addressing the problem.

As a key leg of the three-pronged strategy, it is imperative that Ottawa kick-start a renewed national housing program with a goal of building up to 200,000 affordable and co-operative housing units over the next 10 years. The homes are needed in cities, rural areas and native reserves.

Ottawa effectively got out of the affordable housing sector in 1993 when it downloaded the area to the provinces. Because of that, only a few major programs have been funded. The result is that in the past decade, fewer than one new affordable rental unit has been built for every 100 new homes. And overall rental construction is lagging. Across Ontario, up to 12,000 new rental apartments are needed annually, three times what has been built each year between 2000 and 2005.

The consequences are felt most acutely in the Greater Toronto Area where only 2,000 new affordable rental units have been built in the past five years, while more than 67,000 people remain on waiting lists.

The second leg of the strategy should be a greatly expanded rent supplement program. Obviously, new affordable housing cannot be built fast enough to meet existing demand. That’s why paying subsidies to put low-income residents into vacant rental units is necessary. While some housing advocates view rent supplements as a short-term measure that does not solve the overall problem, such subsidies do provide temporary support and needed housing for those in desperate need.

Currently, a family of four receives a shelter allowance of only $544 to cover rent. However, the average market rent in Toronto has risen to $1,052 for a two-bedroom apartment. During the recent election campaign, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised a new $100-a-month rent supplement program to help 27,000 Ontario families. That is a welcome first step, but it should only be an initial step. More assistance will be needed because McGuinty’s plan will still leave thousands of families scrambling for help to pay their rent.

The third part of the strategy would be a major commitment to renovate public housing that is aging and falling into disrepair. In Toronto alone, the city’s 58,000 units of public housing require an estimated $300 million in repairs. Many of those buildings are now more than 50 years old, with plumbing that leaks and ceilings that are cracked.

The preferred way to deal with this issue is for Queen’s Park to upload the cost of renovations. When the Conservative government under Mike Harris downloaded the cost of social housing to municipalities in 2001, it refused to give the cities the money needed to deal with repairs. McGuinty should make reversing this policy the first priority of his re-elected government.

Together, these measures would form the basis of a federal-provincial affordable housing strategy that would go a long way toward helping the neediest among us – those who cannot work, single parents and the working poor – have a better life.