Why Canada needs universal public housing
Like with health care, public housing should in most circumstances be free, says law student Charlotte Dalwood
This column is an opinion from Charlotte Dalwood, a juris doctor student at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Law. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Canada already has universal public health care. As the country moves into its new post-pandemic normal, it should implement universal public housing, too.
Only a minority of Canadian households own their homes outright. Most have to make monthly payments to banks or landlords, which facilitate the public's access to housing through mortgages and rental agreements in order to turn a profit for themselves.
This means the average Canadian's housing is only as secure as their employment. If they lose their monthly income and do not quickly replace it, they risk losing their home through foreclosure or eviction as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how unsustainable Canada's reliance on for-profit housing providers is during periods of economic and social upheaval. Early in the public health crisis, a sharp rise in unemployment nationwide forced many provinces, including Alberta, to impose eviction bans in order to keep people in their homes.
But the for-profit housing system was problematic even before the pandemic.
The system has been particularly harmful to marginalized members of Canadian society because it worsens the effects of the structural barriers that prevent their equal participation in the labour force.
Personal factors over which these people have little or no control limit both their job opportunities as well as their annual earnings. Consequently, they tend also to experience less housing security under the status quo.
Take Canada's LGBTQ2S+ population.
On paper, this group benefits from a variety of legal protections. The Alberta Human Rights Act, for example, prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of, among other things, their gender or sexual orientation. The Canadian Human Rights Act provides similar protections for workers in federally-regulated industries, such as banking and air transportation.
In practice, however, employment discrimination against LGBTQ2S+ people is rampant in Canada's workplaces.
Compared to heterosexual job applicants with equivalent resumes, homosexual people are 1.5 times less likely to be interviewed for a position if their sexual orientation becomes known to employers. Gay men also earn, on average, $8,000 to $12,000 less per year than their heterosexual counterparts. And a 2015 report on transphobia in Ontario indicated that at least 13 per cent, and perhaps as many as 28 per cent, of transgender Ontarians had lost jobs because of their gender identity.
All this correlates with the relative difficulties LGBTQ2S+ people have accessing stable, affordable housing.
Members of this community make up a mere four per cent of Canada's total population aged 15 and older, but they have traditionally been over-represented amongst Canadians experiencing (or at risk of) homelessness and housing insecurity.
LGBTQ2S+ youth are especially vulnerable, comprising an estimated 25 to 40 per cent of the country's homeless youth population. So, too, are transgender and gender non-conforming Canadians, who are twice as likely as the general population to face "severe poverty and homelessness." In Ontario alone, a 2019 study found that, while 37 per cent of Ontarians live in low-income neighbourhoods, that figure rises to 50 per cent amongst transgender-identifying individuals.
This state of affairs did not come about accidentally. It is the result of government actions, and Canada's governments should therefore act to fix it.
Alberta's Residential Tenancies Act, for example, gives landlords within the province the power to evict residential tenants who miss rental payments.
This power is essential to the operation of the for-profit rental market. It gives landlords a straightforward way of replacing non-paying tenants with paying ones in order to ensure steady revenue from their rental properties.
But it is also a power that is at odds with the Charter of Rights and Freedom's equality protections. These guarantee to every person "the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination … on the basis of sex," and the courts have since recognized sexual orientation as a prohibited basis of discrimination.
A law does not have to be explicitly discriminatory for it to violate this provision. It is enough for the law to have the effect of marginalizing already-marginalized groups.
The eviction provisions in the Residential Tenancies Act have just that effect on Alberta's LGBTQ2S+ population.
They appear, on the surface, to apply equally to everyone: a renter is liable to eviction for non-payment of rent regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
An obstacle to equal participation
But given the widespread economic discrimination LGBTQ2S+-identifying Canadians face on a day-to-day basis, landlords are more likely to use the Residential Tenancies Act to put these people on the street than those who do not identify as part of this community. The law thus imposes yet another obstacle to this group's full and equal participation in Canadian society. And that makes the eviction provisions constitutionally suspect.
Bringing Alberta's housing law into compliance with the charter requires more than just another moratorium on evictions. Structural changes to the housing system are needed.
Housing must be guaranteed to all, regardless of a person's employment status or income level.
Like with health care, public housing should in most circumstances be free at the point of access and financed through taxation (especially of those in higher income brackets). That way, those in dire social and economic straits — LGBTQ2S+ Canadians included — have the full benefit of this government service when they need it the most.
And it should be widely available throughout the country. That way, everyone who experiences employment discrimination, no matter where they are, has a housing safety net to fall back on.
While this might sound like a radical proposal, it is the sort of government action the charter's equality protections demand. Indeed, the very purpose behind those protections is, in part, as the Supreme Court recognized in a 1997 ruling, to "fine-tune society" in order "to ameliorate the position of groups within Canadian society who have suffered disadvantage by exclusion from mainstream society."
Given the systemic discrimination that LGBTQ2S+ and other marginalized Canadians face — in part due to legislation passed by their own governments — universal public housing is necessary to give that purpose full effect.
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