(ENG) United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari


United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari

Mission to Canada

9– 22 October 2007

Ottawa, 22 October 2007

Main Ottawa Public Library


This document includes some preliminary observations of the Special Rapporteur at the end of his visit and is not an official document. The final report on this visit will be presented to the Human Rights Council.

An overview of the right to adequate housing and the mandate of the Special Rapporteur can be found to the annex attached to this document.


Table of content

Introduction. 3

General observations. 3

Housing and living conditions. 6

Homelessness. 7

Affordability. 8

Women’s right to adequate housing. 10

Aboriginal peoples right to adequate housing. 11

Preparation of the Olympics in Vancouver 12

Good practices. 13

Conclusion. 14

Information on the Special Rapporteur 15

Annex 1: The right to adequate housing. 15

Annex 2: List of vulnerable groups (non-exhaustive) 17


Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for coming.

I am Miloon Kothari, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Special Rapporteurs are independent experts in an honorary and unpaid position.

Today I am finishing a visit to Canada at the invitation of the Government of Canada that started on 9 October. The general objectives of this mission were to examine and report on the status of realization of the right to adequate housing in Canada and to engage in dialogues with the Government and the civil society – what you call in Canada non-governmental organizations – in their efforts to secure these rights.

I visited urban and rural areas, including Montréal, Kahnawake territories, Edmonton, Little Buffalo and Lubicon, Vancouver, Musqueam territories, Toronto and Ottawa. In these locations, I met with high-ranking officials and representatives of various Government agencies. I also took testimonies from many women, men, youth and children across the country that were homeless or living in adequate and insecure housing; I met with community-based housing and homelessness service providers, housing agencies, representatives of Aboriginal peoples and civil society organizations. In all cities I participated in large public forums and hearings.

The right to adequate housing contains many essential elements.[1] I have focused this mission on a number of areas including homelessness, problems of inadequate and secure housing and living conditions, women and their right to adequate housing, Aboriginal populations’ adequate housing and the impact of the forthcoming Olympic Games in Vancouver.

This statement provides my preliminary observations based on visits conducted and information received during the mission.

General observations

Everywhere that I visited in Canada, I met people who are homeless and living in adequate and insecure housing conditions. On this mission I heard of hundreds of people who have died[2], as a direct result of Canada’s nation-wide housing crisis. In its most recent periodic review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations used strong language to label housing and homelessness and inadequate housing as a “national emergency”. Everything that I witnessed on this mission confirms the deep and devastating impact of this national crisis on the lives of women, youth, children and men.

Canada has ratified numerous international human rights instruments that not only recognize the right to housing, but also create an obligation on the Government to take steps for the progressive realization of these human rights with the maximum of its available resources. In recent review by United Nations’ authorities, including – most recently – the May 2006 period review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Canada’s continuing failure to incorporate these international legal standards into Canadian domestic law has been noted with growing concern.

In that context I welcome the commitment in the federal Speech from the Throne delivered on Tuesday 16 October to housing and homelessness:

“…middle-class Canadians and their families worry about affordable housing and the number of homeless people on our streets. Our Government is committed to helping Canadian families meet their needs… Our Government will continue to invest in our families and our future, and will help those seeking to break free from the cycles of homelessness and poverty.”

But this promise needs a greater budgetary allocation and specific commitments.

Canada is one of the richest countries in the world, which makes the prevalence of this crisis is all the more striking. The Federal Government has had a multi-billion dollar surplus every year since 1998. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Federal Government’s national housing agency, has had an increasingly large operating surplus – almost $1 billion in the current year. Canada also has a tremendous range of academic, civil society resources and a very strong legacy before the housing cuts of the 1990s of a deep commitment to a broad range of housing solutions.

The Federal Government needs to commit funding and programmes to realize a comprehensive national housing strategy, and to co-ordinate actions among the provinces and territories, to meet Canada’s housing rights obligations.

Canada needs to once again embark on a large scale building of social housing units across the country.

The Federal Government’s Affordable Housing Initiative, including the affordable housing trust funds authorized by Parliament in 2005, are due to expire at the end of fiscal 2008. The Federal Government should immediately renew and enhance housing spending over a ten-year period, as part of a comprehensive national housing strategy.

Today marks the Anniversary of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. I believe this is a good opportunity for all human rights commissions in Canada to expand their work on economic, social and cultural rights and focus on the right to adequate housing as one of the main challenges faced by people residing all across Canada. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, launched a consultation on housing rights in the summer of 2007. The national and provincial human rights commissions across Canada should follow the lead of Ontario in its comprehensive review of housing rights, and in identifying provincial laws and practices that are contrary to the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and international laws and standards.

The Government and Parliament of Canada, along with the provinces and municipalities, are urged to take immediate steps to comply with concluding observations from UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights that economic, social and cultural rights should be fully recognized in all relevant government legislation and should be fully justiciable including monitoring, implementing, investigative and accountability mechanisms.

Canada had a reputation around the world for its progressive housing policies and programmes. But that is no longer the case. There has been a significant erosion of housing policy rights over the past two decades, including:

Housing budget cuts at the federal level, and in many provinces,

Even more dramatic housing cuts in the coming years as the Federal Government “steps out” of its financial commitments under the 1973 to 1993 national housing programme,

Reductions in income support programmes at the federal level, and in every province, that have left many Canadians with little money to pay for ever-increasing housing costs, and

A shift in housing policy to provide support for homeownership, mainly through the tax system, while eroding support for social and rental housing.

Canada now relies almost entirely on the private market – especially the ownership market – for new housing. In each of two recent years (2005 and 2006), the private sector has created more than a quarter of a million homes, but only about one in one hundred of those homes are truly affordable for low and moderate-income households. While in many occasions I have been informed of recent programmes to build what has been called affordable housing, but it seems that not that many are truly affordable for a large portion of the population, and especially for the most vulnerable.

Canada’s successful social housing programme, which created more than half a million homes starting in 1973, no longer exists. Canada has fallen behind most countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its level of investment in affordable housing. Canada has one of the smallest social housing sectors among developed countries.

Even the private rental sector faces financial challenges. A number of provinces are calling for changes in tax laws to encourage the development of private rental housing are urgently required.

According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1.5 million Canadian households are officially classified as being in “housing core need” which puts them at great risk of homelessness. One-in-four Canadian renter households are in “housing core need”, which means that they are living in housing that is unaffordable, inadequate or unsuitable – or sometimes all three. Many thousands more are at risk of becoming homeless, or being forced into inadequate housing conditions.

Given this context of a national housing crisis, a national commitment over a ten-year period is required. Federal, provincial and territorial housing ministers in Canada met in September of 2005 and promised that they were “accelerating work” on a national housing framework. The ministers have not met since then, nor have they issued a draft housing policy. I was encouraged to hear from the Government of British Columbia that a national housing summit will be held in February of 2008. Many government and civil society representatives that I met underlined the urgent need for this national summit and for a national housing plan.

The meeting planned for February is an important step towards implementing the national housing framework that ministers have promised, and that Canadians urgently require. Such a national housing framework will help the Canadian government to meet its obligations in international law to realize the right to housing in this country.

Canada’s federal structure, along with almost two decades of funding cuts and downloading by the Federal Government and many provinces, has complicated the delivery of housing programmes in recent years. Canada has a history of successful cost-shared federal-provincial programmes. More recently, there have been constitutional arguments and other jurisdictional issues that have frustrated the development of a new national housing strategy.

It is important to note that many Canadians face multiple barriers in accessing their right to adequate housing. Specific programmes and policies need to be funded and implemented that address this “intersectionality (multiple discriminations)” approach. It is inconsistent with basic human rights principles to leave marginalized groups as an anonymous part of general housing and anti-poverty programmes.

As part of a comprehensive national housing strategy, particular funding and should be directed to groups that have been forced to the margins, including women, Aboriginal people, elders, youth, members of racialized communities, immigrants and others.

Housing and living conditions

Everywhere that I visited, I heard testimonies and received voluminous reports from independent bodies, about substandard and inadequate housing and living conditions. This included aging housing stock in both the public and private sectors, on Aboriginal reserves and in urban areas. I heard about a series of specific major health concerns, including through bed bugs, cockroaches, mice and other infestations, and chronic mold. I heard about inadequate heating systems, and high energy costs.

The Federal Government’s housing renovation programme, called the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (or RRAP), has been expanded in recent years and is being used in many parts of the country to improve housing conditions. However, this valuable federal programme is due to expire at the end of fiscal 2008.

The Federal Government should immediately extend and enhance the RRAP programme to make the funding permanent and increase the amount available to renovate housing across the country, as part of a comprehensive national housing strategy.

I also heard that housing co-operatives funded under a part of the National Housing Act called “section 95” that they are being forced to reduce the amount of subsidy because of funding decisions by the Federal Government. Providing subsidies, or housing allowances, to people living in social housing is one of the most cost-effective ways to meet the housing needs of low-income households.

The Federal Government should provide a comprehensive and complete fix for the “section 95” funding gap that has led to a reduction in the amount of subsidy available to lower-income households living in housing co-ops.

The international right to housing is indivisible with the human right to water. I was disturbed to learn that up to one-quarter of all Aboriginal households do not have access to potable water, or their water is seriously at risk. Water is fundamental to human life, and Canadian NGOs are among the leaders in the global campaign for the right to water and water security.

The Federal Government should commit the funding and resources to ensure all households have access to potable water and proper sanitation consistent with the recognition of water as a human rights and recommendations for State policies as detailed in General Comment Number 15 of the CESCR.


Homelessness is one of the most visible and most severe signs of the lack of respect for the right to adequate housing. It is even more shocking to see the number of homeless people in such a developed and wealthy country as Canada. Unfortunately the Government of Canada could not provide reliable statistics on the number of homeless in the country (something that many other countries are doing). The National Homelessness Secretariat has suggested that there might be 150,000 homeless people, but notes that its number is not reliable. Experts and academic institutions have suggested that the actual number of homeless people may be at least double that amount.

Homelessness is especially severe for elderly, women, including young girls, and children. The risk of being homeless is not only a gender issue but also a racial issue. Aboriginal people constitute a large majority among the homeless population. For instance in Edmonton, Aboriginal people make up 38% of the total homeless population – many times higher than the share of Aboriginal people in the general population.[3] The situation is similar or worse in other cities of Canada –in Winnipeg 70% of total homeless population consists of Aboriginal people.

I heard presentation on the Federal Government’s national homelessness programme, called the Homelessness Partnering Strategy. This programme has provided support for a wide variety of important and successful services, and has helped to fund new transitional housing. But it is due to expire at the end of fiscal 2008, and the current funding – divided among 61 communities – is not adequate for the entire country.

The large number of people in Canada living in poverty, the growing number of food banks, and studies show that the number of people that cannot afford housing or sustain their rent is increasing, resulting in an increase number of homeless. One major cause of growing homelessness is the high cost of rents and the overall decline in renter household incomes in recent years.

The Federal Government should extend the national homelessness programme for at least five, or even ten years, and should increase the funding available across the country, as part of a comprehensive national housing strategy.


Lack of sustainable affordable housing is one of the main issues that jeopardize the realization of the right to housing in Canada. Affordability is critical to ensure people keep their homes, no matter what the market dictates, and also to provide alternatives for a wide range of people that have lost their homes or are at risk, for those who have finished programmes of transitional housing.

The increase of housing prices and the lack of affordability is growing in all sectors of the population. I could observe how due to the shortage of social housing stock, the original target population has changed and programmes are distorted, needing to meet the necessities of a growing and more diverse population than originally assessed.

One dramatic indicator of the growing affordability crisis is the record-breaking number of evictions in Ontario (there are no comprehensive national statistics). The year 2005 saw the greatest number of households facing eviction in the history of Ontario. The year 2006 set a new record high of 60,000 evictions. There are no comprehensive national statistics on evictions, but the high cost of rent set against the decrease in tenant incomes is a critical national issue.

Rising rents and declining income has evident impact on tenants’ ability to address their other fundamental needs including food and clothing. Many testimonies that I received confirm this. Unfortunately, studies show that the situation has not evolved positively since 2001 and the results of the last survey that will be made available in the coming months will confirm this.[4]

A large number (30 to 50%) of people in shelters are working. This is most dramatic in Calgary, where municipal officials report that half the people in that city’s homeless shelters have jobs, but are unable to find adequate, affordable homes. A similar situation is reported in Edmonton, while Toronto’s 2006 street count identified that one in four of every shelter user had some form of employment.

The implementation of subsidies to complement the cost to rent and other mitigation measures are commendable. However, it seems nevertheless that a greater number of social housing units need to be built by the State as the needs are not being currently met.

Tenant protection, rent regulation and income assistance programmes differ across the country depending on provincial or territorial policies. This uneven patchwork leaves tenants in most parts of the country extremely vulnerable.

The Federal Government needs to work with the provinces and territories to create a consistent framework of tenant protection and rent regulation laws across the country that meet the standards set in international housing rights law, as part of a comprehensive national housing strategy.

Additional housing allowances, funded by the federal and provincial governments, are an immediate (although short-term) solution, as part of a comprehensive national housing strategy.

Provincial and municipal authorities need to review planning and zoning criteria to remove barriers to the development of truly affordable housing, and to require a proper mix of affordable housing in all new developments.

Canada lacks a national poverty reduction strategy, and only a handful of provinces have implemented provincial poverty reduction plans. A comprehensive poverty reduction strategy addresses housing and income as part of a holistic approach.

Grossly inadequate social assistance rates are trapping many of the lowest-income Canadian households into chronic poverty and inadequate housing. The Federal Government made major cuts to social spending, and cancelled the Canada Assistance Plan in 1995 (CAP provided a framework of national standards for income assistance) and virtually every province has allowed income assistance levels to drop to extremely low levels since then.

The Federal Government needs a comprehensive and properly-funded poverty reduction strategy based on its human rights obligation, and complementary plans should be implemented in the provinces and territories – linked to a comprehensive national housing strategy.

Women’s right to adequate housing

Homelessness and inadequate housing particularly impacts women. Studies clearly show that women and especially single mothers are disproportionally affected by the issue of affordability or discrimination. During the visit, I heard many testimonies in this regard. Women told me that social assistance entitlements are insufficient and do not match the cost of housing and other living expenses. I also heard some very disturbing testimonies on women whose children were taken away because they were living in inadequate housing, an issue that particularly affects Aboriginal women.[5]

In meetings with local officials it was reported that there is a lack of funds to create new social housing units which particularly affects women headed households in core housing need. Although women leaving abusive relationships have priority for social housing (except for in the three Territories), a woman with maximum priority to access housing, due to her situation, may still need to wait up to three years to get a home. The lack of affordable housing and alternative accommodation, inadequate social assistance rates, as well as related services, pushes women to stay with a violent partner or to return to violent relationship to avoid homelessness.

Amongst the many forms of violence that aboriginal women suffer, studies show that they endure three times higher rate of spousal violence than non-Aboriginal[6]. In this context, the lack of protection law for women living on a reserve, or the impossibility to file complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission constitutes one of the greatest barriers to the enjoyment the right to housing and a life free of violence. Another major barrier that needs to be overcome at the earliest is the family and matrimonial real property laws on reserves. Overcrowding houses, accommodating up to 3 generations in some regions, is one of the major causes for abuse, violence and homelessness. Women and young girls off reserve are experiencing violence in a daily basis.

Specific, flexible and culturally adequate solutions have to be provided to for aboriginal populations, especially where homeless is not an option due to climate reasons. Adequate shelters conceived according to cultural needs and specificities as well transitional and long term housing policies need to be implemented at the earliest.

In view of the current situation women face throughout the country, I was surprised to receive information on significant cuts to the budget and the modification the mandate of Status Women Canada, the only Federal agency focused on women. This might contradict the legal obligation of allocating maximum available resources and the non-retrogression with respect to human right that is mandated in Article 2 of the ICESCR. Moreover, I am concerned that some women’s organizations have been defunded for their service provision to women, research and advocacy activities.

Canada should implement measures to address urgent, short term and long term needs of women in the country. Immediate implementation at all levels of the government of the recommendations from the United Nations treaty bodies on these specific measures, would eliminate the various barriers that women face both in urban and rural context in their daily life.

Very progressive legislations to address violence against women are being implemented in several provinces. These legislations should include, among other components, the sustainable access to housing for all women.

The implementation of policies, to comply with international and domestic legislation addressing the fulfillment of women’s right, needs to be supported by the necessary funds and resources at all levels of the government.

Accountability on the creation, funding and implementation of programmes and policies that address housing and domestic violence must be undertaken at levels of the Government. Effective participation and consultation with women is not only a right but the best manner to ensure that policies and laws achieve their objectives.

Aboriginal peoples right to adequate housing

Throughout the mission I was disturbed to see the devastating impact of the paternalism that marks federal and provincial government, legislations, policies and budgetary allocation for Aboriginal people on and off reserve. These policies have seriously compromised the right to self determination that Aboriginal people enjoy under the original treaties and the International Covenant on ESCR.[7]

Housing and homelessness conditions facing Aboriginal people both on and off-reserve are shocking. Overcrowded and inadequate housing conditions, as well as difficulties to access basic services, including water and sanitation, are major problems for Aboriginal peoples.