OPINION: Many Canadians left in need of good, affordable housing

​Housing markets are not able to produce the accommodation needed by many sections of the population.

It would take 226 years to solve housing problems at current rate, Sarah Cooper and Ian Skelton argue

For almost a generation, there has not been a consistent national program in Canada to address the widespread and growing housing need. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Housing markets are not able to produce the accommodation needed by many sections of the population.

Consequently, public support and investment have been necessary to build, maintain and manage a portfolio of social housing, but today, the supply of public, non-profit and co-operative housing is in a downward spiral.

For almost a generation, there has not been a consistent national program in Canada to address the widespread and growing housing need.

In 2011, 1,552,145 households in Canada (12.45 per cent) were in core housing need.

This means their housing was inadequate (required major repairs), unsuitable (not an appropriate size) and/or unaffordable, and that they would not be able to afford adequate, suitable housing in the local area.

While core housing need was down from 13.55 per cent in 1991, at this rate of change, it would take 226 years for core housing need to be eliminated in Canada.

Over the 20-year period, there was variation in core housing need.

From 1991 to 1996, it increased from 13.55 per cent to 15.63 per cent, coinciding with the 1993 freeze in federal housing spending, as well as with a widespread recession and cuts to social welfare programs in many provinces.

From 1996 to 2011, core housing need decreased 15.63 per cent to 12.45 per cent.

The apparent reversal of the 1991-1996 trend gives little comfort, as under the 1996-2011 trend it would still take 58 years for a core housing need to disappear. 

Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH) and the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) are the two main programs at the federal level to address housing need.

Both are plagued by inconsistent, insufficient and irregular funding.

Most importantly, they are not designed to deal with core housing need; the IAH develops housing at 80 per cent of average area rents, which is significantly higher than many low-income households can afford, and the HPS focuses primarily on the visible homeless.

Various organizations and think-tanks have put forward actions and proposals to address the growing Canadian housing crisis.

Most of the solutions would provide benefit across the housing system and would strengthen the system as a whole; some would not and might weaken or damage it.

The proposals are grouped in terms of where their main effects are directed and can be found in the Addressing Core Housing Need in Canada report, which will be released Thursday morning.

Canada needs a national housing strategy that would cover housing for different income levels, needs, and tenures.

Parallel to this, an aboriginal/First Nations-led strategy to address aboriginal/First Nations housing needs both on and off-reserve is an essential element in self-determination.

These strategies will require significant intergovernmental and intersectoral collaboration.

They should include social housing components so rents are affordable and providers can offer any needed social supports.

Shelter allowances provided to the household rather than the unit may appear flexible, but they do not increase the amount of housing available, as they apply only to existing housing.

As well, they may increase overall rents, effectively being a direct subsidy to private landlords.

With relatively little rental housing built in Canada since the 1993 social housing freeze, vacancy rates have dropped and rents have risen across the country.

Rental housing is a useful option for mobile people, free of risks attached to owner occupation such as interest rate increases and unexpected repairs.

Its supply can be increased through changes to the tax system.

Raising incomes, which are the other half of the affordability question, would enable renters to afford higher rents, but if rents increase more rapidly than incomes there would be no benefit.

Ensuring moderate-income households have access to adequate, suitable and affordable housing is important, but ensuring that low-income households have the same is more urgent.

This cannot be done solely by the market.

For these households, social housing, often with ongoing subsidy, is the only feasible option to move out of core housing need.

Focusing our efforts on supporting and expanding existing social housing, and developing new social housing, is key to reducing core housing need in less than 226 years.

Sarah Cooper is a PhD student in urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a CCPA research associate.

Ian Skelton, senior scholar at the University of Manitoba, is a retired member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a CCPA research associate.


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