HAPPINESS COLUMN | How the affordable housing crunch is affecting our well-being

With affordable housing options in Canada becoming harder to find, CBC Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss looks at how a lack of housing is affecting your well-being and your community.
Currently, 283,000 households across the country are on a wait list for affordable housing. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Take a moment to answer this question: How happy does your home make you?

Some of you may say "overall, pretty happy."  Even despite its quirks or the current state of mess it's in; you like where you live. It's the place where you feel like you can unwind. It holds great memories. It's comforting and safe after a long day. Basically, it just works.

This is an example of how a home can make us happy.

Unfortunately, for 1.7 million Canadian households who live in "core housing need," their experience is vastly different. These Canadians may live in a home that is too small or too costly, or the place they live in is structurally unsafe, or their neighborhood is dangerous.

They may not have a home at all.

In response to their current housing situation, many feel mentally and physically unwell. Currently, 283,000 households across the country are on a wait list for affordable housing with nearly two-thirds waiting more than two years to get access, according to Statistics Canada.

More than one person feels the impact

The lack of affordable housing is significant because the health effects stretch way beyond just those without access — it impacts the entire community.

Studies continue to find a connection between affordable housing and improved well-being both at a personal and community level.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation surveyed 326 Canadian families who received access to affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity. The organization looked into changes to people's health and how social and financial dynamics were impacted after receiving access to affordable housing. Three main benefits stood out.

Increased well-being and academic performance in youth: A stable home eliminates frequent moves and fewer school transfers. Children have a "home base" where they can make friends, develop meaningful connections with their teachers and engage in extracurricular activities.

They also enjoy school more, have higher rates of attendance and better behaviour while in school. They experience increased participation in sports and the arts as well. According to a campaign by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, children living in affordable housing are more likely to secure post-secondary education.

Improved mental and physical health: There are many ways living in stable, affordable housing helps improve an individual's mental health. This can include reduced financial stress and improved family dynamics. Also, moving away from areas where high crime rates are an issue unburdens the stress of living in a state of fight or flight.

For those who were previously living in unsafe conditions, this posed a massive risk to their health. Over 70 per cent said they've experienced fewer colds, flus, allergies and asthma symptoms.

Financial stability: To sustain mental wellness and happiness, it is key to be able access affordable housing because it allows for money left over for other key expenses, such as food and services, and additional healthcare costs like dentists and out of pocket expenses that the healthcare system may not cover.

When housing isn't affordable

In Canada, access to affordable housing is challenging, particularly when so many are spending half of their income on housing — 30 per cent is the norm. This means that Canadians who might be making a decent income are still paying way too much for a home.

Unfortunately, it's the most vulnerable who are hit the hardest. For those in the lowest income bracket across the country, they pay nearly 70 per cent of their income on housing each month — that is just astronomically high and leaves no room for even the basics like food and clothing.

The current federal government is four years into a 10-year strategy that aims to build more affordable housing and offer rent subsidies. They've allocated $40-billion in financial commitment with a goal to build 100,000 affordable housing units over a decade.

The most recent budget added some additional first-time buyer initiatives and more resources to solving homelessness, but in the meantime, other innovative ideas have come into view. For example, Toronto HomeShare is a City of Toronto program that matches older adults with university and college students seeking affordable housing.

In exchange for reduced rent of $400 to $600 per month, the student provides up to seven hours of companionship and/or assistance with light household tasks like preparing and sharing meals, tidying up, carrying groceries, or walking a pet. In return, the householder gets weekly support, overnight security, guaranteed companionship and (hopefully) friendship.

A place to call home

There is also an Ontario Homeshare program as well as a McMaster University initiative named Symbiosis that are helping to spread these alternative solutions. When we come up with social innovations focused on solving for the greater good, they tend of have positive knock-on effects for our communities.

It's also important to remember that big wealth gaps are found in the least happy countries around the world and in reality only serve a small portion of the population.

To enjoy diverse and thriving communities, we need to consider how all income levels can intersect.

When there is equity, we find dignity — a key aspect of human flourishing.

When we have equity, we give every person the chance to have safety and comfort, a space with all its quirks and gifts, its mess and sanctitude.

When we have equity, we give everyone a place they can call home.


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.


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