As part of its ambitious national housing strategy, the Liberal government is vowing to enshrine the right to adequate housing as a fundamental human right in Canadian law, a symbolic move that has practical considerations.

For years there has been an international push to do just that, and Canada is already a signatory to the UN-backed International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes housing as a right.

"Housing rights are human rights and everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home... and one person on the streets in Canada is too many," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday in announcing the long-awaited, roughly $40-billion plan to help fund the construction of more social housing, repair old units and deliver up to $2,500 a year in rent support for vulnerable families.

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Don Iveson, Edmonton's mayor, and the current chair of the Big City Mayor's caucus, championed the announcement Wednesday, in part because of its commitment to protect housing as a human right.

'A fundamental need'

"Access to adequate housing is not just something that our citizens simply want or desire, but it is a fundamental need — a human right, even — and I believe that this announcement is the start of treating it as such."

But just because housing could soon become a "right" — albeit not one embedded in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — the government is not expected to supply a house to every man, woman and child within its borders.

"While most governments are involved to some degree in housing construction, the right to adequate housing clearly does not oblige the government to construct a nation's entire housing stock," the UN suggested in its recent report on the issue.

"Rather, the right to adequate housing covers measures that are needed to prevent homelessness, prohibit forced evictions, address discrimination, focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, ensure security of tenure to all, and guarantee that everyone's housing is adequate."

In addition to Wednesday's announced plan, the government is preparing a separate Indigenous housing strategy — to be released at an unspecified later date — that it says will be tailored to the unique needs of the many inadequately housed Indigenous communities where market-based solutions are often unfeasible.

Enshrines a public sector role

Importantly, a recognition that housing is a human right triggers some expectations under international law and demands the government act to address persistent problems. It is also a tacit admission that charities alone cannot solve the problem and that the public sector should take the lead coordinating solutions.

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Guy Caron, the NDP's parliamentary leader, said he hopes the Liberal government's pledge is more than simply semantics. "It's one thing to actually say that housing is a right, it's another one to actually ensure that it's legislated properly." 

The government has tried to counter such skepticism by promising to soon introduce legislation in Parliament that will commit this government, and all future governments, to maintaining a national housing plan, and producing yearly reports on progress towards reducing homelessness.

This is an effort to ensure action in this area is not limited to the Trudeau government alone. The Liberals are also appointing a federal housing advocate, which they say will ensure accountability and transparency of future leaders.

Liberal plan checks the boxes: expert

When the Ontario Human Rights Commission studied this very issue, they found, while most housing advocates welcomed a pledge to protect housing as a right, they were more interested in practical measures that might be made towards making it a right, such as:  

  • Governments setting reasonable targets to get more people into homes (the Liberal plan promises 530,000 households will find more secure housing when the strategy is fully implemented).
  • Allocating sufficient funds.
  • Improving rental housing options.
  • Adopting measures to address discrimination.

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Leilani Farha, the executive director of Canada Without Poverty and a UN rapporteur, said the Liberal plan checks many of the boxes used to define a "human rights approach" to housing, among them legal recognition of the right to housing, a commitment to equality, measurable goals and timelines, and a comprehensive plan and accountability measures.

Historic step

"This housing strategy, I can't say it's leading in the world, and there's some real weaknesses that need to be addressed, but it's a solid rights-based strategy," she said.

Farha said the pledge to reduce chronic shelter usage by half by the year 2026 is "too timid," and Canada could have set a more ambitious target.

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Leilani Farha, a United Nations human rights expert, and the executive director of Canada Without Poverty, left, said the Liberal government's housing strategy checks many of the boxes a 'human rights approach' to housing demands. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

"It's historic to have adopted a housing strategy at all, but to have added to that all these strong human rights recognitions ... for me it's a really big step that this government, and all governments of Canada, have really resisted in the past. They've been repeatedly told, since 1993, by the UN that they need a housing strategy. So, it's been a long time coming."

Importantly, the Liberals consulted widely with the homeless, and those who live in insecure housing, before unveiling their plan, Farha said.

She said that sort of outreach is what led to the creation of the $2,500 housing benefit, which ties housing assistance to a person rather than a unit, meaning it can be used by those who move around for school or work.

"It has to be people-centred and that's not just a throwaway tokenism ... It means every step of the way people who are affected have to be involved in a meaningful way in the process and in the rollout. And they've done that."

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