For many Canadians, the increasing number of people living on the streets, in shelters, or as “hidden homeless” is the new normal. But it wasn’t always like this. In 1973, the Urban Affairs minister, Ron Basford, called housing a social right, a right that included not just a home but a community, where people could work and study and raise children and, well, flourish. The federal government committed significant funds to ensure that everyone in Canada had a home.
So, what happened?
In 1999, I worked as a front line lawyer at a community legal clinic in Toronto. The number of clinic clients facing eviction had doubled within a year. Increasingly people had nowhere to live. The reason? The province had introduced the Tenant Protection Act. Tenants were no longer protected by vacancy control, meaning that if a tenant moved out, the landlord could raise the rent as high as they wanted. As a result, rents began to rapidly escalate while incomes remained stagnant, and landlords had new incentive to evict long term tenants so they could charge more rent.
The provincial war against tenants happened in the context of the withdrawal of federal funds for affordable housing across Canada. For thirty years, the federal government funded the construction of up to 20,000 affordable housing units per year. In 1994, as a “cost saving measure” this funding was cut. Out of two perfect storms, a crisis was born. Housing became a commodity, a hot one at that.
As a result, Canada fell far behind international norms with regard to housing their population. Compare Singapore and Hong Kong where 76% and 47% of the population, respectively, live in subsidized housing. Western Europe’s strong tradition of affordable housing is evident, with Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria’s public housing stock ranging from 23-40%. In Canada the figure is 4%.
Housing and Poverty
Today, most people lose their rental homes because they can’t afford them. A recent study of tenants facing eviction at the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board found that a key factor in housing insecurity for tenants is poverty: three-quarters of tenants surveyed had incomes below the poverty line, and almost half were spending more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent, putting them at high risk of homelessness and forcing them into shelters.
At least 150,000 Canadians a year use a homeless shelter at some point. But shelters are an enormously expensive band aid. In Toronto, for instance, a shelter bed costs $2250 per month. Is this where we want to put our resources? Why not use this money to ensure that everyone has a place to call home?
We have been in desperate need of a National Housing Strategy. One with a clear vision that recognizes housing as a fundamental human right, commits to a program that moves from “managing” homelessness to ending homelessness, and which designates sufficient funds to build affordable housing across the country.
We need our federal government to stand up, take the lead and demonstrate the moral courage to end this crisis. And then we need provinces, territories and municipalities to follow suit.
Other countries have done it. Canada can too.