Michael Shapcott on Housing Justice


Michael_Shapcott-7644Money may, or may not, buy justice… but the ongoing cuts to federal affordable housing investments are almost certain to guarantee growing injustice and inequality when it comes to housing. And those people who are already bearing a heavy burden in terms of precarious housing and homelessness—including Aboriginal people, racialized people, women and lower-income households in general – will take the biggest hit as the nation-wide affordable housing crisis continues to be deep and persistent.

First, the details of the federal housing cuts: The latest corporate report from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal government’s housing agency, confirms that the two-decade erosion of federal affordable housing investments is continuing to grow worse. The corporate report from CMHC  includes actual results from 2008 to 2010, and plans or estimates for 2011 to 2016. The latest numbers show that federal housing program expenses, including the affordable housing initiative, were $3.6 billion in 2010 as the short-term affordable housing investments from the 2009 stimulus budget reached their peak. However, funding was cut by more than one-third in 2011, and those cuts will continue to get worse through 2016.

The CMHC corporate plan also confirms that the number of households assisted under federal housing programs will be cut by almost 100,000 to fall from 623,700 households in 2008 to 525,000 households in 2016. That cut of 16% in the federal of federally-subsidized households comes at a time when most communities across Canada report that the after-shocks from the 2008 recession are continuing to cause deep housing and homelessness distress. For instance, the central affordable housing wait list for the City of Toronto hit an all-time record of 83,681 households in March of 2012. Toronto’s affordable housing wait list has set a new record every month, year after year, since the fall of 2008.

By 2016, the federal affordable housing initiative will be cut to zero and combined federal housing investments will have been cut to $1.8 billion – a cut of 52% in just six years. The planned housing cuts come at the same time that CMHC is reporting that its net income will rise to $1.6 billion annually by 2016. CMHC generates revenues from commercial activities, including premiums from the sale of mortgage insurance. The net income is the surplus generated after expenses are deducted from revenues.

The financial impact of the federal housing cuts is large. Many of the federal dollars leverage a dollar or more from provincial and municipal governments, and a dollar or more from affordable housing providers – which adds up to an annual loss of $5.6 billion in affordable housing investments in 2016 and every year after. That cumulative total in lost funding could fully finance the entire development of more than 22,000 affordable homes annually across Canada.

Federal housing cuts starting in the late 1980s helped trigger a nation-wide rise in homelessness and a deep and persistent affordable housing crisis. The majority of precariously-housed Canadian households are invisible, as set out in the Wellesley Institute’s Precarious Housing in Canada, which includes recent numbers on the 1.5 million households in core housing need (the federal government’s own definition of the most poorly housed Canadians) and 3.1 million households paying 30% or more of their income on housing (roughly one-in-four Canadian households).

Second, the equality and justice context: Housing is a market commodity for most Canadians. Across Canada, only about five percent of Canadian households find housing in non-market homes – community-based non-profits, government-managed public housing or resident-managed co-ops. Fully 95 percent of Canadians find their housing in the private ownership market (about two-thirds of Canadians) or in the private rental market (about one-third of Canadians). The exact percentages vary across the country. In the Lower Mainland, and many other urban areas across the country, there is a slightly higher percentage of social housing, and a higher percentage of private rental housing. But no matter where you live in Canada, the private housing markets are where most people are forced to find a home.

Private markets in housing, like other private markets, don’t respond to human needs, but reward or restrict access based on financial resources. The sky-high ownership costs for housing in Vancouver regularly draw national (and sometimes international) attention. Owner markets in other parts of Canada are slightly less dramatic, but the barriers to entry are almost as high. Throughout Canada, low, moderate and middle-income people are literally priced out of expensive ownership housing markets – and recent moves by the federal government to restrict mortgages to ensure the stability of Canada’s financial markets only raise the barriers even higher. But it’s not just ownership markets – rents in Canada’s private rental markets have been rising faster than the rate of inflation, and faster than incomes for low, moderate and middle-income households, for years.

When Canada launched its highly successful national social housing program in 1973, the federal government proclaimed that housing was a fundamental right of all Canadians, and that the government had an obligation to ensure that right is realized. Government housing programs were supposed to target people and households who couldn’t access the private ownership or rental markets – low-income people, Aboriginal people, women and others facing systemic barriers such as recent immigrants and racialized Canadians. Much of the post-73 housing was also in mixed-income projects, with low, moderate and middle-income people living next door to each other. Canada’s national housing program of 1973 was a huge success, but as government funding started to erode in the late 1980s, and government programs were cancelled in the 1990s, mass homelessness and precarious housing began to arise throughout the country.

Housing is one of the most important requirements for a healthy life. Part one of the Wellesley Institute’s Precarious Housing in Canada sets out the research evidence that links poor housing and poor health. Other research, including the Street Health report, document the devastating health impact of homelessness. The health impact of precarious housing is called “Canada’s hidden emergency” by a powerful research initiative from the Centre for Research in Inner City Health at Toronto’s St Michael’s Hospital, which sets out the data and analysis from Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto.

The Wellesley Institute’s Precarious Housing in Canada charts the steady erosion of federal housing investments since the late 1980s. There have been a few upward blips as short-term housing investments were announced in 2001, 2006 and 2009. However, each of these temporary infusions of funding were cut by what the federal government calls the “scheduled termination” of the investments – continuing the downward trend.

In 1993, the federal government stopped permanent funding for new affordable housing. In 1996, the federal government announced plans to transfer the administration of most national housing programs to provincial or territorial jurisdiction. Two years later, the Ontario government announced a further download of housing to municipalities. By the mid-1990s, Canada’s national housing program launched in 1973 – which generated more than half a more affordable homes across the country – had been completely dismantled. That left Canada virtually alone among the nations of the world without a national housing plan.

In 2009, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing delivered a scathing final report on his fact-finding mission to Canada  (which was made on the invitation of the federal government) to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2009 at the same time that the council was conducting its Universal Periodic Review of Canada’s compliance with its international housing and other human rights obligations. The Special Rapporteur concluded that while Canada has a long history of housing successes, the housing cuts starting in the late 1980s have effectively prevented Canada from meeting its international housing obligations.

The 2009 Universal Periodic Review adopted these critical concerns in its final set of recommendations to Canada, which included a number targeted to the cuts to housing funding and programs. In June of 2009, the federal government issued its formal response to the UN Universal Periodic Review. It accepted the housing and homelessness recommendations, and promised to work more closely with provinces and territories. However, the latest CMHC corporate report shows that the federal government is not planning to honour the promises that it has made to the UN Human Rights Council. Canada faces its second Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2013, and will be called to account for its housing record by civil society organizations and UN HRC member countries.

Bill C-400, a private member’s bill to create a national housing plan for Canada that meets the growing national need and also Canada’s international housing obligations, was introduced in the Commons in February of 2012. The bill calls on the federal government to convene a process that engages provincial, territorial, municipal and Aboriginal governments, along with the community and private sectors, to create a comprehensive national housing plan within six months. A similar bill in the last Parliament drew the support of the majority of Members of Parliament including members of the New Democratic Party, Liberal Party and Bloc Quebecois. The Conservative Party opposed the bill and, although it had passed second reading and amendment at committee, it died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved for the last federal election. The Conservative government can use its majority to stall progress and votes on the draft legislation, but a wide array of community and business groups are urging Members of Parliament to set aside partisan considerations and are calling for a national housing plan.

More housing news, research and analysis is available at the Wellesley Institute website.


Michael Shapcott
Director, Housing and Innovation,
Wellesley Institute, Toronto, Ontario

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