Liberals establish road map for talks to legislate a right to housing

The federal government is offering the first hints of how it plans to go about creating a new right to housing, raising more questions about just how far the Trudeau Liberals plan to go with the idea.

Right to housing included in government's national housing strategy released in 2017

A consultation process will ask Canadians about how to improve access to housing. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)

The federal government is offering the first hints of how it plans to go about creating a new right to housing, raising more questions about just how far the Trudeau Liberals plan to go with the idea.

The idea behind enshrining a right to housing was to provide some recourse to anyone wrongfully denied an apartment or home, either through tribunals or the courts.

However, the government has not shown any interest in amending the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, saying it prefers to focus on getting people into housing.

Those initial thoughts on planned housing legislation are contained in a recently released discussion paper that coincided with the mid-March launch of online consultations on how Canadians themselves would see a rights-based approach to housing taking shape

The document includes a message from the minister in charge of the file that says the plan would take a "human rights-based approach" to ensure every Canadian has access to a safe and affordable place to call home, and to reduce homelessness and poverty levels.

Also contained within the discussion paper were some of the steps the government plans to take while working towards the goals set out in their housing strategy, which was announced late last year.

Those steps include:

  1.  New legislation that would require the federal government to maintain a national housing strategy.
  2. Appointing a new federal housing advocate to identify barriers to housing and provide support to Canadians. This job posting is set to open this spring. 
  3. Establishing a new National Housing Council before the end of 2018 to help promote more Canadian participation in the evolution of the strategy. 
  4. Implementing a community-based tenant initiative that would build inclusiveness within communities and support people in need. 
  5. Carry out a public engagement campaign in 2020 to inform the public about the different types of available affordable housing, and support the development of more socially inclusive housing projects. 

But the language used in the documents could be problematic, according to an international expert on housing issues.

The government has chosen to focus on what it calls a "human rights approach," when housing is currently not officially recognized as a human right in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The government is manoeuvring around using the term the 'right to housing.' If you read the consultation paper closely, they don't actually recognize that housing is a human right unto itself," said Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing.

"There is some footwork going on here that is worrying me."

Four key pillars

Creating a right to housing is part of the government's vaunted national housing strategy released late last year.

The strategy pulls together previously and recently promised federal spending totalling about $26 billion, with another $14 billion coming from provinces, territories and the private sector. All the spending is supposed to happen over the course of the next 10 years, much of it after the 2019 election.

The Liberals say the rights-based approach is evident in their strategy, as well as the planned legislation's focus on helping those who are homeless or living in homes that are unaffordable or inadequate due to building conditions or overcrowding. Enshrining that overall strategy into law would also ensure a future government couldn't cancel it easily.

The four key pillars of the proposal would focus on:

  • "Inclusiveness" by helping those in the greatest need;
  • "Accountability" by requiring regular reporting to Parliament about national housing efforts;
  • "Participation" through the creation of a national housing watchdog;
  • "Non-discrimination" to work to eliminate systemic issues that prevent people from finding a home. 

A promised new housing advocate would identify systemic issues in the housing system. The paper also promises a new national council to guide the implementation of the housing strategy and a program to fund local groups that help people needing housing.

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Farha, who is also executive director of Canada Without Poverty, said the Liberals need to give the advocate greater independence from government and a wide mandate to look at all housing issues, not just efforts covered by the strategy.

The government also says it is planning a public awareness campaign about social housing in 2020, the same year the government is proposing to have the first progress report on the strategy.

The legislation would require updates on the housing strategy every three years thereafter.

Mathieu Filion, a spokesperson for Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, said the government plans to introduce the rights legislation before the end of the year.

"Our government believes housing rights are human rights. That's why we've committed to anchoring the National Housing Strategy in a rights-based approach," said Filion.

"But this is something new for Canada and, therefore, we need to get the perspective of Canadians before we move further. ... This consultation allows us to deepen and broaden our thinking."

The online consultations close on June 1.

With files from CBC News