- Foreword by Cathy Crowe ix
- Introduction xvii
- The Making of a Crisis 1
- Defining Homelessness 38
- Counting the Homeless 90
- A Cross-Canada Survey 115
- The National Picture 202
- How Did Things Get So Bad? 229
- The Emerging Patchwork 248
- The Way Forward 262
- Appendix 335
- Notes 344
- Acknowledgements 361
- Index 365
How to End the National Crisis
• I am part of that generation of Canadian urbanists who grew up believing in the ideas of Jane Jacobs. Jane became my neighbour in downtown Toronto, having moved with her family from New York City not long after she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. A later edition included these words: "Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon .... Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental." I know I join a great many Canadians and city-lovers around the world in missing Jane's wise and piercing observations, now that she has passed on. May her wisdom continue to inform the decisions we make.
Coming from a life in politics, I will probably focus too often on the policy-based origins of the problem and the program-¬based solutions. In the end, however, the- evidence presented here should convince most skeptics that a free-wheeling economy left to its own devices, as it has been for decades, will send more of our citizens out into the cold. Governments that allow one of our basic needs to deteriorate without a significant response are directly contributing to the crisis.
• Tommy Douglas, the founder of the NDP, urged everyone to "dream no little dreams" when confronting the tough problems of the Depression in Saskatchewan. Let us not dream little dreams about homelessness. Let's dream about ending it, once and for all.
• On the wall in my House of Commons office on the sixth floor of the Parliament Buildings, tucked in behind the Peace Tower, is a poster with another quote from Tommy Douglas, the leader who brought Medicare to Canada. On that poster are his inspiring words: "Courage my friends, 'tis never too late to make a better world." It's time for the same kind of courage and determination to take hold once again. Let us put the epoch of homelessness in Canada behind us. And don't let them tell you it can't be done!
The Making of a Crisis
• Homelessness does not occur in a social vacuum. In general, the events that make people homeless are initiated and controlled by other people whom our society allows to engage in the various enterprises that contribute to the homelessness of others. The primary purpose of these enterprises is not to make people homeless but, rather, to achieve socially condoned aims such as making a living, becoming rich, obtaining a more desirable home, increasing the efficiency at the workplace, promoting the growth of cultural institutions, giving cities a competitive advantage, or helping local or federal governments to balance their budgets or limit their debts. Homelessness occurs as a side effect. Yet it is a consequence of these enterprises, and therefore the discourse on homelessness must be broadened to reach into those areas of housing, income production, health care, and family life where the events and people contributing to homelessness are situated.
• The single biggest cause of homelessness was financial (loss of job, not enough money to pay the rent, eviction, not enough affordable housing) at 45 percent. The next biggest reason was interpersonal conflict and divorce (including physical and sexual violence) at 26.7 percent. Poverty .and a lack of affordable housing is a key factor for this group, as well. Many women fleeing a violent relationship or youth seeking refuge from physical or sexual violence don't have the financial resources to find a new home. Those that do, don't usually end up in homeless shelters. Drug and alcohol use was 17.7 percent, and mental illness, at 3.7 percent, "was the least reported reason for becoming homeless," according to the researchers. "The study looked at the prevalence of lifetime diagnoses of mental illness in the homeless population," said Dr. Wasylenki, chief of Psychiatry at the Wellesley Hospital.
• Searching for the causes of the current homelessness crisis is not such an impossibly complex task. In plumbing the depths of our social and economic processes to find answers - as many inquiries and studies have done - one common theme has emerged. Dr. Anne Golden, president and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada, and the team that worked with her to produce the Toronto Mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force Report (usually referred to as the Golden Report) summarized the essential causes of homelessness in a succinct list.
- Increased poverty: Both the incidence and depth of poverty have increased because of changes in the structure of the labour market and because of public policy changes such as restrictions on Employment Insurance eligibility and cuts to welfare.
- Lack of affordable housing: The dwindling supply of low-cost rental units and rooming housings, along with the withdrawal of support by both the federal and provincial governments for new social-housing programs, have made affordable housing much harder to find.
- De-institutionalization and lack of discharge planning:
- Many people who suffer from mental illness and addictions are homeless partly as a result of de-institutionalization without adequate community support programs; in addition, their problems have been exacerbated by the inadequate discharge planning of hospitals and jails.
- Social factors: Domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, and the alienation of individuals from family and friends have increased the incidence of homelessness. Homelessness is the ragged edge of the social fabric.
There is no shortage of ideas about homelessness and what could be done about the crisis. In community meetings and hearings before town and city councils across Canada, wise ideas have been brought forward by the homeless themselves and by those who work with them. Analysts from the social sciences have exposed truths, too. So have housing experts, mayors, columnists and religious leaders. Ideas about causes. Ideas about solutions. As well, success stories from other countries are available. We'll look into some of them in this book.
• We all wanted city council to call for a coroner's inquest into the death of Eugene Upper. As well, we did not want council to wait for the results of the inquest to take key emergency steps that were obviously needed. Here are the key elements of the plan that was put together in direct response to the Upper tragedy:
- Create an emergency phone line for homeless people to call, without requiring 25 cents, or for citizens to call if they see a homeless person who might be in trouble.
- Expand the street patrols on cold nights.
- Create an emergency fund of $600,000 to open drop-ins on holidays and weekends and to make sure there are enough shelter beds.
- Mandate the newly created Homeless Advisory Committee to work to prevent freezing deaths in the city.
And, of course, we always underlined the direct connection between the desperate shortage of affordable housing - caused by a deliberate series of policy decisions by senior levels of government - and the increase in homelessness and the growing number of homeless deaths.
• Anyone concerned about people dying homeless in the streets is going to be frustrated by any extended discussion of what homelessness actually is. "Don't they understand the problem?" The rhetorical question reverberates in meeting halls where panels of three levels of government point fingers of blame at one another. Putting aside such frustrations is important, because we need to accept that participants in the debate are often defining the problem differently. They usually get one of four things wrong - either out of inexperience, naivety, or sheer bloody-mindedness: they minimize the problem; they structure the definition so the homeless are blamed; they define the problem so that it's someone else's problem; or they define the problem so that it is all-encompassing, absolutely huge. p.42.
• More than a decade later, this broad approach towards under¬standing homelessness was convincingly advanced in the Toronto Mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force. Its final report, Taking Responsibility for Homelessness: An Action Plan for Toronto, was released in 1999 and captured national attention, partly because of the profile of its sponsor, Toronto's new mega-city mayor at the time, Mel Lastman. At his request, Dr. Anne Golden, then head of Toronto's United Way, chaired the task force. (The mayor asked me to be the city councillor who worked with her team.) The letter prefacing the task force's final report said: "We have included in our definition of homeless people those who are 'visible' on the streets or staying in hostels, the 'hidden' homeless who live in illegal or temporary accommodation, and those at imminent risk of becoming homeless."
Toronto has stuck with this approach. The first annual Toronto Report Card on Homelessness 2000 defined homeless to include people who
Toronto has stuck with this approach. The first annual Toronto Report Card on Homelessness 2000 defined homeless to include people who
- live on the street;
- stay in emergency shelters; and
- spend most of their income on rent or live in over¬crowded conditions, and are at serious risk of becoming homeless.
• In their report on Canada's progress during the 1987 International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, Peter Oberlander and Arthur Fallick looked at the broader issues, noting that homelessness involves more than simply the presence or absence of shelter. The search for the nature and scale of homelessness in Canada rests on the definitional problems. Is homelessness an issue of poverty? or employment? ... Is it an issue of discrimination? or of location? of education? Or is it primarily an issue of measurement? Varied evidence increasingly points to the answer: It is all of these factors and more; no single causal factor can be used to define homelessness exclusively or successfully." An acute version of this same sentiment comes from the Alternative Housing Subcommittee for the City of Toronto, as far back as 1985: "Homelessness is not simply the lack of stable shelters; it is a life in disarray. The homeless person's existence is a public existence - there is no privacy."
• Not surprisingly, Aboriginal people make up a big share of the homeless population in almost every part of the country, especially in the Prairie cities. Why are Aboriginal people over¬represented among Canada's homeless? Higher rates of poverty and lower levels of available and decent affordable housing are the primary causes, exacerbated by centuries of discrimination.
A Cross-Canada Survey
• At a provincial level, renters across Newfoundland and Labrador are faring almost as badly as those in the capital city of St. John's: rents are rising and tenant household incomes are falling. In 2004, there were just 21 new rental homes completed in the entire province. In 2005, the number of completions was zero. The rent-income squeeze combined with the slump in new construction signals an ongoing affordable housing crisis, and continuing homelessness, in the coming years.
• We all know that such levels of poverty, and the accompanying lack of both affordable housing and supportive housing, undermine our society. You cannot have a democracy which functions on the legitimacy of the citizenry and then have citizens eliminated from that society by their condition. Citizenship implies inclusivity. An inclusive society cannot accept the idea that exclusion is normal.
The true reflection of ourselves, of our society, is the one among us who has least. That is the bar by which we must measure ourselves, our own success, that of our society. It is, in the words of Thomas de Koninck, a matter of honouring the human wherever the human is found. found.
• In late 2006, the Wellesley Institute released its Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto. Michael Shapcott, who headed the effort for the Wellesley Institute, met with more than 40 housing and homelessness experts from the community, business organizations and government. The plan digs deep into Toronto's neighbourhoods - providing, for the first time, a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood analysis of housing and homelessness conditions - and it offers sensible, practical and fully costed recommendations to combat homelessness in Toronto.
Michael has worked with groups in other communities to develop their own local plans. After two decades of cost-cutting and downloading from federal to provincial governments and, in most provinces, continuing down to municipalities, these community plans are the first stage in a growing campaign to upload housing costs back to where they belong (at the provincial/territorial and federal levels), while administration remains with municipalities that know the local conditions best.
The Wellesley plan shows, once again, that we don't lack for practical and effective solutions. The problem is politicians who refuse to commit the funding and stand in the way of progress.
• Let's just say it's not positive. Developers often use this tactic - called "block busting" - to drive down the value of remaining properties, making way for parking lots and eventually some form of redevelopment for higher revenues. Rarely is there any provision for the displaced tenants. Property rights reign supreme over housing rights.
Like most other cities, though, Regina took on the issue. In July 2000 the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Housing released a report that looked at all aspects of student, downtown, affordable-suburban, inner-city and social housing. Working with the co-operative movement, particularly the Regina Women’s Construction Co-operative, the committee has encouraged new ideas for small projects. Without financial assistance from governments with access to growing tax bases - income, corporate and sales taxes - these promising initiatives will remain model projects rather than needed, full-fledged housing programs.
This is all the more crucial now that several years of solid government policy and high primary commodity export prices have brought Saskatchewan to the status of a "have" province after years of enduring the "have not" label. The economic boom has driven housing costs up rapidly.
• We live in a climate of poor-bashing and denial about mental illness, while blame for the consequences of bad management typically falls on those who are "managed." Many of us seemingly want the poor and vulnerable to disappear. Few of us want them in our backyards.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people are being pushed into homelessness, many of them emerging from sectors of society not previously plagued by the threat of being without a home.
The National Picture
The Roots of the Crisis
• The two most important dimensions of the housing crisis are affordability and supply. On the affordability side, renter household incomes have been stagnant, or even declining, in recent years, while rents have been increasing. This has caused an affordability squeeze as tenants are trapped between higher housing costs and shrinking paycheques.
Core Housing Need is a term developed by the Canada Mort and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to count the households unable to afford a suitable, adequate, median-rent unit in their community and that have one or more of the following concerns:
- Affordability - their home costs more than 30 percent of their gross income;
- Suitability - their home is too small for the household size and composition;
- Adequacy - their home lacks full bathroom facilities or needs major repairs.
Most low-, moderate- and middle-income households in Canada are renters. People with higher incomes tend to buy their homes. The relatively low mortgage rates and strong supply during the late 1990s and early part of the twenty-first century allowed tenant households with higher incomes to buy their own homes.
• Many of these insecure households are forced to use food banks on a regular basis because they don't have enough money to visit their local supermarket. Starting in the early 1980s, food banks were set up across Canada as an emergency measure to meet the need for basic nutrition. Food banks don't solve the hunger problem, but they help people stay alive from one day to the next. It's a sad fact that food banks have become institutionalized in both cities and small communities in almost every part of Canada. The high cost of housing is the single biggest factor driving people to food banks.
A growing number of Canadian households are also finding it hard to pay the rent and cover the utility bills (electricity, gas and other energy sources). In recent years, the high cost of energy has been the second-leading cause of economic evictions¬ behind the high cost of rents. And, just as charitable organizations started food banks in the 1980s, Canada has seen the growth of energy charities in the 1990s to help people cover their energy costs and maintain their housing.
But what happens when tenants get caught in the relentless squeeze between rising rents and dwindling incomes-and the available dollars simply cannot be stretched any further, even with the charitable response of food banks and energy charities?
A large number of renters are being forced into overcrowded housing-two or three households jammed into a small apartment. As a municipal and now federal politician, I've knocked on many doors, and it still shocks me to see what crowded conditions some families have to endure. Officially, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports that 58,300 renter households across Canada are packed into housing that is not suitable for the size of the household. But that number is prob¬ably short by a factor of at least 10. Most households that are squeezed into tiny apartments don't want their landlord, or the local municipal authorities, to find out.
The Human Face of the Housing Crisis
• Who are these renter households trapped in Core Housing Need, one rent cheque away from homelessness? They are Canadians who have been left behind during the so-called economic boom starting in the mid-1990s. They include people who have to rely on income assistance (seniors, the disabled, single parents, the unemployed); those who work at or close to the minimum wage; sales and service workers; part-time workers; and, in some parts of the country, even workers earning average salaries who are struggling to pay the rent. Let's look at some examples:
- A disabled person in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, was eligible for a maximum of $9,728 in 2005. Using the standard calculation, that person could afford to pay $243 each month for rent, yet the average rent for a cramped bachelor apartment in that city was almost double at $472.
- A single employable person in Calgary could receive up to $5,050 from provincial social assistance in 2005. That person could afford $126 each month for rent, yet the average rent for even the tiniest bachelor apartment in Calgary is $524 - so this tenant better be prepared to share bunk beds with at least four others to cover the rent.
- A single mom in Vancouver with one child might get up to $13,948 annually from the B.C. government in 2005, which would allow her to afford up to $348.70 monthly for rent. That's only about one-third of the way to the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment at $1,004.
- A young worker in downtown Montreal, whose employer was generous enough in 2006 to give her $1 over the minimum wage, would have earned $18,200 in 2006. She could afford to pay $455 each month in rent, yet even in Montreal (which has historically had lower rents than Canada's other big cities), that's well below the $574 required for a one-bedroom-apartment.
- A sales clerk in downtown Toronto would have earned, on average, slightly more than $28,000 in 2006. He could afford a rent of $707 at a time when the average rents in downtown Toronto (which are the highest in the entire country) start at $800 for a bachelor and rise to $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment.
• There's a growing income polarization across Canada (see www.growinggap.ca. In recent years, Statistics Canada reports that the richest 10 percent of neighbourhoods in most urban areas have grown richer even as the poorest 10 percent getting - you guessed it - poorer. For instance, from 1980 to 2000, the richest 10 percent of Edmonton's neighbourhoods saw their incomes rise by 6 percent, while the poorest 10 percent saw their incomes drop by about 13 percent. In Quebec City the richest 10 percent saw their incomes grow by 11 percent while the poorest 10 percent lost about 7 percent of their incomes. Even in those areas where the poorest households enjoyed a real increase in their income, the richest households still managed to build up an even bigger gain. In Kitchener, Ontario, the income of the poorest 10 percent of households saw their incomes climb by 7 percent, while the richest 10 percent had a 28 percent increase.
How Did Things Get So Bad?
• Most provinces – notably Ontario - continued the spending cuts and downloading to municipal governments, which under Canada's constitution don't even have an independent existence (they are considered "creatures of the provinces" and have limited revenues - mainly¬ property taxes and grants from senior levels of government.
Two Decades of Housing Erosion
• There has been a steady erosion of housing policy, funding, programs and regulation over the past two decades in Canada under successive federal governments. As the affordable housing crisis and homelessness disaster have grown worse, there has been an emerging patchwork of national, provincial and local programs, but no overall housing strategy.
The Conservative government elected in January of 2006 has taken steps to further cut, download or commercialize most of the remaining housing initiatives at the national level. Let us review the federal funding cuts and the resulting cuts to programs in the 1980s and 1990s:
- Federal funding cuts: The election of a federal Conservative government in 1984 led to a series of cuts to housing funding and programs, starting with a $217.8 million cut to housing development and rehabilitation funds in November of 1984. Over the next 10 years, the total cuts amounted to $1.8 billion.
- New funding cancelled: In 1993, the federal Conservative government cancelled funding for new co-op and non¬profit housing and capped the total spent on the existing national social housing portfolio at $2 billion annually.
- Housing promises shelved: In late 1993, a Liberal government was elected. The Liberals had promised, while in opposition, to restore funding for a new national housing program, but they failed to act on those promises. They continued the cuts started by the Conservatives.
- Federal housing downloaded: The federal government, in its 1996 federal budget, announced plans to download the existing federal housing programs to the provinces and territories. This decision ended the decades-long federal role in housing development. It also locked into place a 30-year decline in federal housing funding¬ - dropping from $1.7 billion to zero by the third decade of the twenty-first century.
- Further erosion of role of CMHC through commercialization: The 1996 budget further eroded the role of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (the federal housing agency) by commercializing part of CMHC's mortgage insurance portfolio. The handover of part of this portfolio to a private sector insurer was completed with the introduction of amendments to the National Housing Act in 1998. Advocates warned that this would further erode the ability of the federal government's housing agency to support the development of new affordable housing.
The Ideology Behind the Cuts
• Something remarkable happened on November 6, 2006. It was a conversion that, in housing terms, was almost as spectacular as the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, who was in the final days before his retirement, stood in front of a meeting of the Calgary Homeless Foundation and said: “The struggles of the homeless and the working poor in places like Calgary and Fort McMurray are unfortunately more of a challenge today then ever. It’s a great concern to see that half of Calgarians that are homeless right now have a job but are simply not making enough money to afford appropriate accommodation.”
Three years earlier, just before the Christmas holidays, that same Ralph Klein had made a sudden late-night visit to an Edmonton homeless shelter after an evening of Yuletide refreshments. He accosted a homeless man who was entering the shelter, threw a fistful of money at him and suggested he get a job. The man that he insulted actually did have a job, working in a self-serve gas bar, but his meager wages weren't enough to cover the cost of an apartment in Edmonton's red-hot private rental market.
In those three years, Premier Klein had moved from blaming the homeless person to understanding something of what was behind the homelessness and affordable housing crisis: low wages, high rents, not enough supply. It was an important step on the pathway to discovery, though Premier Klein was still many steps away from acknowledging the solutions.
In the months leading up to his retirement in late 2006, Premier Klein was unusually reflective. He admitted, on more than one occasion, that his government had failed to recognize the looming affordable-housing crisis and the underlying homelessness disaster. However, he blamed it all on a super-heated economy - the economic good times caused Alberta's bad housing crisis, and Klein insisted that there was nothing government could do to anticipate, let alone respond to, policy disaster.
He never admitted that the housing funding cuts made by his government in the 1990s (almost $200 million - the second-largest in dollar and percentage terms among all the provinces and territories) had anything to do with the shortfall in affordable homes. Strangely enough, while Premier Klein in Alberta was blaming the economic good times for his province's housing woes, down east in Nova Scotia, Premier John Savage was blaming the economic bad times (relatively speaking) for his province's affordable-housing troubles.
Premier Klein, and many other conservative politicians (including lots of Liberals) have an almost child-like faith that private markets will cure anything that ails the economy. The powerful ideology driving the housing funding and downloading of the 1980s and 1990s across Canada was the notion that governments should "get out of the business of housing" (to quote Ontario Premier Mike Harris in 1995) and leave private rental and ownership-markets to work their magic.
Governments are bad, private markets are efficient - that was the refrain. So governments cut housing funding and down¬loaded programs, then stepped back and waited for the rising tide to lift all boats. And what a tide it was during the late 1990s and into the early part of this millennium. Most of the economic indicators showed that the economy was doing well, not just in Alberta but throughout the country. In relative terms, Canada had a powerful economic wave that was supposed to deliver affordable homes to the households that needed them, in addition to delivering a record level of corporate profit to wealthy investors. The profits certainly rolled in, but not the affordable-housing.
Premier Ed Stelmach, who moved into the office recently vacated by Ralph Klein, inherited record-breaking levels of homelessness and a deep affordable-housing crisis in urban and rural Alberta. As soon as he took office, Premier Stelmach appointed an affordable-housing task force. He gave it 45 days to report back on practical measures to deal with what even government officials were acknowledging was the "crisis" in affordable-housing in the province: sky-high rents, lack of supply, rapidly escalating ownership costs, growing homelessness. None of the task force members could be described as a rabid "socialist,” yet their final report clearly noted that the private markets have failed - and will continue to fail - to deliver the affordable homes that are so desperately needed. The task force called the provincial government to develop a plan and intervene, including regulating rents and more money for new homes.
In other words, the grand housing experiment of the 1980s and 1990s in Alberta, and throughout Canada, of gutting government programs and relying entirely on the private market to deliver affordable homes was a failure in the province that most economists would describe as having the strongest conventional economy.
Right across the country, there are different characters, but the overall story is the same. From the booming economy of Alberta to the more sluggish Atlantic region, from British Columbia's Lower Mainland to Ontario's manufacturing heartland, from the frigid winters of Iqualuit.to the south shore Montreal, low-, moderate- and even middle-income households were reporting increasingly tough times finding - and maintaining - affordable housing.
In 2003, TD Economics, the research wing of one of Canada's largest chartered banks, released a groundbreaking report on Canada's housing crisis entitled Affordable Housing in Canada: In Search of a New Paradigm. Housing advocates and academic researchers had been warning for years that the private sector alone could not deliver truly affordable homes. Now, a big bank added its voice:
Housing is a necessity of life. Yet, after ten years of economic expansion, one in five households in Canada is still unable to afford acceptable shelter - a strikingly high number, especially in view of the country's ranking well atop the United Nations human-development survey. What's more, the lack of affordable housing is a problem confronting communities right across the nation - from large urban centres to smaller, less-populated areas. As such, it is steadily gaining recognition as one of Canada's most pressing public-policy issues.
TD went on to tackle the central question: Did the good economy of the 1990s deliver the affordable housing that Canadians so desperately needed? The short answer, according to the bank's economists, was a resounding no:
Undeniably, the favourable mix of a strong economy and low interest rates since the mid-1990s has delivered significant benefits to the average Canadian household. But, therein lies a problem - most Canadian households are not "average."… two important developments put a damper on the progress achieved in the second half of the 1990s:
- Most low-income families continued to fall further behind during the second half of the 1990s. Although total family income in real terms for the lowest 20 percent of income earners began to grow again in the 1996-2000 period (by 0.5 percent per year) after falling by an annual average rate of 0.8 percent in the 1991-95 period, these gains were one-quarter of that chalked up by the average Canadian family. And, for those who did fare better, rising incomes were often outstripped by rent-cost increases.
- The overall supply of rental housing has stagnated in recent years, and has actually been receding at the lower end of the rent range - which is the segment of the market where lower-income households with affordability problems are concentrated - causing rents in this spectrum to jump accordingly.
Under the heading "Is there evidence that a rising tide lifts all boats?" the TD report had this to say:
- [A] more important question from the standpoint of the housing affordability problem is whether the rewards of robust economic growth in recent years have made their way down to those Canadian households most in need.
- There is no short answer to this question. On an aggregate basis, the bottom 20 percent of families enjoyed a modest rebound in real total income in the 1996-2000 period. But, at 0.5 percent per year, this growth rate paled in comparison to the 2-percent annual rate of growth recorded by Canadian families on average. Moreover, the fastest rate of real income growth was posted by the top 20 percent of earners (2.7 percent per year). And, while a breakdown of income gains is not available by CMA [Census Metropolitan Area] provincial figures show that income performances for those in the bottom 20 percent of the spectrum lagged behind province-wide averages in all regions except Newfoundland and Labrador, with the largest gaps in New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia. While the second-lowest quintile of families recorded income increases in the 1996-2000 period more in line with their higher-income counterparts, they still fell well short in all provinces except New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador.'
This section of the report ended with the following text in italic: "In sum, the evidence that a rising tide lifts all boats is spotty at best - though, certainly, it is superior to a situation where all the boats are sinking." My friends in the Maritimes have this rather sensible reflection: A rising tide lifts the boats for those who are able to afford a boat. Everyone else gets drowned!
But then, it wasn't just Alberta in 2007, or the TD Bank in 2003, that came to this fundamental conclusion. In 1995, the Conservative government of Mike Harris was elected in Ontario. Its first order of business was to implement its plan for the government to "get out of the housing business" by gutting funding for social housing, downloading housing programs to municipalities and slashing tenant protection and rent regulation laws. The Harris government killed 17,000 affordable homes that had been approved for development within two weeks of taking office. Mike Harris's housing minister, Al Leach, held secret meetings with developers, landlords and other private sector lobbyists. They presented him with a detailed shopping list identifying a long list of government programs to be cut. The goal in Ontario was to get the government out of the housing business and allow private markets to work their "magic." The Harris government generously did everything the private sector asked for.
The private market, at last, was entirely free to meet the affordable-housing needs of the people of Ontario. Homelessness, and affordable-housing waiting lists, grew longer. As the government cut rent regulation laws, rents increased rapidly and the number of tenant households facing evictions grew to all-time records - year after year! Far from solving the affordable ¬housing troubles of the people of Ontario, the Harris government's blind faith in private markets only served to make the problems worse. The private sector built housing (mostly owner¬ship) for people who could afford the growing costs, while low-, moderate- and even middle-income households were left behind.
In September 2000, the Ontario government commissioned its own affordable housing task force, called the Housing Supply Working Group, to develop a comprehensive strategy to get private sector back into building new rental accommodation. Two years later, the task force concluded that the private sector was not able to build affordable housing for lower income Ontarians. It tried to put an optimistic spin on this by saying that investment at the top end of the rental market would create vacancies that would eventually filter down to the lower parts the market, where the need is most acute. In its second report the government, the Housing Supply Working Group stated:
Currently, builders appear to be interested again in entering the market, especially at the luxury end, which offers higher income streams and potentially higher rates of return. As mentioned earlier, high-end rental production may help to create market liquidity and new opportunities for loosening the pressure on available stock. New high-end rental attracts higher income tenants, thereby freeing up some existing lower priced stock for tenants.
Of course, if the Alberta or Ontario governments (or any of the other federal and provincial governments that were slashing housing funding and programs in the 1990s and hoping that the private sector would pick up the slack) had done their homework, they wouldn't have adopted such disastrous policies.
In 1948, University of Toronto housing expert Humphrey Carver wrote Houses for Canadians, the first major housing in our modem history. Carver was a leading figure in housing policy; in 1948, he went to work for the CMHC as the national housing research director. So much of what he had to say is important, even 60 years later, so it's worth reviewing his final chapter, aptly titled "The Ultimate Housing Problem." He wrote:
A shortage of housing is not a new phenomenon. In Canadian cities the situation has been in the process of development for a long time, particularly since 1930 when the incoming supply of new housing began to lag seriously. The rapid growth of the urban wage-earner population, during and since the recent war, has finally brought matters to a head because the great mass of this population cannot afford to buy the new housing that it needs. So far Canadian communities have met this situation in an entirely negative manner; some of their citizens have been expected to lower their standard of living and lower their standard of housing. The poorest families have had to occupy undesirable housing and pay the rent that it has commanded even though this has been greatly in excess of their real capacity. It has been shown that low-income families have habitually had to pay a larger proportion of their incomes for housing accommodation than has been paid by families in easier circumstances. Even if low¬ income families had paid the same proportion, many of them would still have been unable to maintain a standard of living which has received general recognition by the community of which they are members.
The ultimate objective of the national housing program should be the provision of a decent dwelling for every Canadian family. From this it follows that the crucial and ultimate test of the effectiveness of housing policy is the condition of the worst housed families in our communities. The task will not be completed until obsolete housing has been removed and every Canadian family has been given the opportunity to enjoy healthy and satisfying living conditions. It is a task which undoubtedly requires all the technical ingenuity and administrative skill which the Canadian people possess.
Obviously the most convenient and economical way of providing the community with an adequate supply of decent accommodation is through the economic market for new housing. If those who can afford to own or to rent new housing could maintain such a volume of production that every family could be well-housed and obsolete housing could be successively removed, then in the process of time there would be no housing problem. All the resources of science and industry must be applied to the removal of the obstructions at the point where, in a free economy, the bulk of the housing supply should be concentrated - at the mid-point in the income scale. Unless a balance in the ratio between incomes and housing costs can be established, the shortage will continue to stack up against families in the lower-income ranges. Unhappily, any study of the economic factors involved seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that a balance of incomes and housing costs is most unlikely to be established at a level which would produce an adequate supply of housing. This has certainly been the experience of all other industrialized nations and there are no factors peculiar to our economy which indicate that Canada is likely to be an exception to this experience. In fact, the requirements of shelter in our stern climate are likely to make the economics of housing in Canada especially intractable.
If this conclusion is well founded it will be necessary to devise a means whereby a larger proportion of the national income may be directed into the production of housing. It will be necessary to supplement the supply of housing created by the private market. Under the social and economic conditions characteristic of a society such as ours, the recourse to public housing and the operations of rental subsidies seems to be an expedient which cannot be avoided if the national housing program is to be maintained. By the very force of circumstances Canada is already, in fact, embarked upon such a course; the projects of Wartime Housing Limited and the emergency housing operated by municipalities are all both publicly owned and subsidized. (The city of Toronto, alone so far amongst Canadian municipalities, has undertaken to build rental housing through its own public housing authority because there is no other way in which such rental housing can be produced.)
The postwar housing program is much further advanced it seems inescapable that there will be much public discussion as to the future extent and permanency of public housing in Canada. In discussions of this subject it is found that some are born "public housers" and their views on the matter are blurred by an emotional aura, while some have public housing thrust upon them reluctantly and refuse to accept it as more than an emergency measure. Too few are able to achieve a rational view of this evidently essential element in a national housing program. The problem is, of course, of a political nature since it involves the relative responsibilities and functions of government - federal, provincial and municipal. The choice of methods and the exact allocation of responsibilities will, quite properly, arouse differences of political opinion, for such is the process by which decisions are made in a democracy. Differences of opinion are to be appreciated rather than repressed. But differences of approach toward the subject of low-rental housing should not be allowed to obscure the central and non-political fact that the provision of this type of accommodation is the ultimate housing problem. This is no longer a matter of controversy. Nor is there much value in debating the fact that, to date, there is no known method of providing low-rental housing except through public agencies supported by some kind of contribution from public revenue.
No amount of statistical research and no authoritative dogmatic pronouncements can specify the extent to which public housing should be taken, because no one can foresee the extent to which the private market will succeed in fulfilling any community's needs. The potentialities of the economic market and the resources of the private builder must be extended to their limits both in providing additional housing in suburban areas and in effecting replacements in the interiors of cities.
It must be admitted that there are not at present very hopeful prospects of extending the economic market through a reduction in housing costs. Unless the Canadian people are prepared to make a revolutionary attack upon wage rates and upon interest rates, the only direction in which it is possible to seek significant economies is in the building process itself. Though prefabrication still gleams like a bright star on the horizon, it is only realistic to confess that it is still very far away. Much of the genius of American industrialists and much public capital has been made available to prefabrication enterprises in the United States since the war, but in 1947 only 5 percent of new dwellings in the United States came from this source and prices proved to be no lower than those achieved by old-fashioned methods. This skeptical interpretation of the facts before us does not make it any less necessary to pursue with energy the innumerable minor features of economy by which the housing market can be broadened. But it would be foolish to imagine that the combined effect of all the known economies in production would be sufficient to invalidate the main conclusion at which we have arrived, namely that the economic market cannot by itself fulfill the housing needs of the Canadian people.
The Emerging Patchwork
• Giving a little bit of money to a whole lot of people produces a more satisfying result for some politicians rather than spending the amount of money that is necessary to create good results. The federal Liberals opted for the "wide and narrow" approach to the affordable-housing program, rather than "deep and focused." They were able to claim credit for more homes that were subsidized, but the shallow subsidy for each home meant that the new homes weren't truly affordable for the people who needed the housing the most. For John, the homeless man you first met in the Introduction, and others like him, the federal-provincial-territorial affordable-housing program didn't offer much help.
The Way Forward
• It's not exactly a call to arms, and it has clearly been softened through recent amendments. (The Canadian government does not want to suggest that it has an obligation to house Canadians.) But this National Housing Act could still be interpreted as a mandate for the Canadian government to get involved. And, try as they may, federal cabinet ministers should not attempt to hide behind the idea that housing is a provincial responsibility.
We also find that Canada signed the following article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
Article 25 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Perhaps, after 50 years, forgetfulness has set in. Perhaps the conscious drift towards the idea that the free market can best achieve these goals has been at work. Whatever the cause, many of the tools in Canada’s affordable-housing public safety policy kit have not been used in years.
Social-housing programs built tens of thousands of units for low-income people until the focus on deficit reduction and tax cuts knocked the wind out of those sails; these programs were judged too expensive by both Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. Until then, Canada had been an international model for social-housing development, studied around the world. At the time, Canadians were building lots of mixed-income communities, avoiding the ghettoization often found elsewhere.
In one of the ultimate ironies, the Habitat II world convention in Istanbul in the early 1990s gave Canada an award for its remarkable housing programs. At the same time as the award was being presented to Canadian representatives, Paul Martin’s federal budget was axing the award-winning initiatives.
• Needed now are ways to take the positive results of local initiatives and extend them across the country in a concerted effort. Ottawa's A Better Way Task Force brought all kinds of players into one room and worked out how to speed up planning approvals for housing so that costly delays could be radically cut. Lessons they learned could and should be brought to all cities now. Instead, each municipality invents its own version of the wheel. For example, in Vancouver, a "convertible house," designed by a firm called Dovertel and assisted through the city's approval, shows how a home can be built with a secondary rental suite included from the outset, even in a traditional residential neighbourhood. The extra $10,000 cost is quickly recovered from rent and lets first-time or lower-income home¬buyers qualify for mortgages. This terrific idea should be adopted across the country, but little headway is made in the absence of a national plan to actively disseminate good ideas.
Charlottetown brought together Atlantic People's Housing Ltd., the Prince Edward Island Home Builders' Association and CMHC to figure out how to put more homes in the same space - ¬housing intensification, as urbanologists would say. But who else knows about this?
• As mass homelessness has grown across Canada, municipal leaders have joined with housing advocates to press for solutions. This new coalition has been powerful and successful. But there has been a dark underside in a number of municipalities, as local politicians pass laws that criminalize activities associated with homelessness, including sleeping in public. Driving homeless people out of public spaces, and forcing them into expensive jail cells when they cannot pay the growing number of fines, is no solution. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani tried this in New York City in the late 1990s. By 2002, his final year in office, there was a record 38,000 people crowded into New York's homeless shelters, not to mention the tens of thousands in jails and hospitals.
Rounding up homeless people and locking them away doesn't address the root causes of homelessness. Building affordable housing and providing support services does.
• The need for new rental units is not evenly distributed across Canada. In the North, there is practically no demand for new multiple-unit rental apartments. Our analysis showed that Manitoba and Saskatchewan produce a modest annual rental housing demand of about 1,000 units. The highest demand for new rental units exists where urban centres are growing rapidly. Therefore, it is no surprise that Quebec, with its growing cities could need 11,000 rental units a year - although this number was adjusted to take into account the high-rental vacancies we've seen in Quebec cities in previous data. Then, Ontario produces an annual rental demand of 21,000 apartments; Alberta, 4,000; and British Columbia, 7,000.
What do all these projections mean? Data like these should be incorporated in all government planning concerning housing. If not, it's like pretending we are standing still. The numbers also signal a huge, looming problem: because we are not producing anything like the number of rental units required to meet the needs of Canadians as expressed by these estimates, inevitably this lack of supply will drive rents much higher and leave more Canadians in rent-induced misery. This research proves that more Canadians will end up homeless.
Our data showed that an acceleration of homelessness would occur in Canada unless urgent action is taken. To quote our study: "The sharp rise in affordability problems in the 1990s tells us that relief is needed if low-income Canadians are to regain the quality of life they had a decade ago…. The expected increase in rental demand suggests that national housing policy needs to shift from its focus on ownership housing."
Solving Canada’s Housing and Homelessness Crisis – Who
Does What, When and How?
Land-use laws and development
• Councils can pass laws. This may sound easy and basic. Far from it. When councils consider new laws, there are always opponents - people and interests who liked the old way of doing things. However, most municipal governments have public hearings, and while this allows opponents to turn out, it also gives homeless advocates and the homeless themselves an opportunity to speak.
One of the most powerful tools that cities have is land-use control, usually found in laws known as official plans and zoning bylaws. Few cities use these tools systematically and effectively to create affordable housing, even though they could do so. Let’s consider the possibilities.
Cities could insist that new developments contain a specified proportion of affordable housing. In fact, some cities have attempted this, as have some provinces. Developers, predictably, object. "Why should I have to absorb this obligation when previous developers did not have to do so?" they typically moan. Still, cities should insist that newly developed communities provide housing to meet the needs of a broad spectrum of house¬hold incomes.
To make this kind of planning policy work, there has to be a linked program of financial support to the tenants moving into the affordable units within these developments. We've already seen that low-income, core-need tenants in Canada simply cannot afford the rents for even a modestly built new rental apartment today. But there is absolutely no point in having bylaws that just cannot be made to work. Toronto found this out when its wonderful Central Area Plan of the mid-1970s proclaimed the goal that 25 percent of the new housing in the downtown should be affordable. For a while this worked, because there were programs to assist low-income tenants and non¬profit housing developers. Then federal and provincial governments withdrew from these housing-support programs, leaving the city with a policy that sounded good but wasn't producing results. By the early 1990s, affordable-housing construction in the central city was grinding to a halt. New housing was still being built - but as we have seen it took the form of condominiums, not affordable to low-income families.
Another classic example was Toronto's railway-lands development, next to the CN Tower. After a protracted debate, stretching well over 10 years, council insisted that a portion of the 200 acres be reserved for affordable housing amid the forest of office towers and luxury condo high-rises, the preference of the big development companies. Today, those reserved lands stand vacant. There is no sign of a government program to pay for the construction or to help low-income tenants with the rents. Yet right next door, on the waterfront, low-income non-profit housing and co-operatives were built at the same time as the condos lining Queen's Quay. Constructed in the 1980s, these successful mixed-housing neighbourhoods came into being when federal and provincial low-income-housing-construction programs existed. We must push for the reinstatement of programs like the ones that made the waterfront development relatively successful at achieving affordability in the housing mix.
It is time for the cities to create official plans and zoning bylaws that integrate the land-use provisions with funding programs more directly. As with everything municipal, the provincial governments would likely have to give their assent to such a new approach to land-use regulation. Montreal and Vancouver, with their "city charters," have more legal freedom to act and may be able to set the pace.
There are other ways in which the price of housing may be affected through land-use controls. One way is to reduce the cost of providing services to new houses by requiring them to be built closer together. "Residential intensification" is the technical planning term used these days to capture this idea. Sprawling suburban housing is expensive to service. When development sprawls, underground water pipes, sewers, roads, sidewalks and public¬ transit vehicles all have to go farther to reach the next house. As a result, costs are driven up. Eventually, the resident pays for these costs through development charges or through property taxes - usually both. More densely planned housing can save money.
However, there is no guarantee that the savings will go to the residents, because the demand in the new-development area may permit high prices. This is another case where complementary development and financing strategies have to work together. If each development has an affordable component built by the municipal housing agency or a non-profit group or co-op, there can be some certainty that the savings will produce more affordability. Arrangements such as this need to be factored in the new community plan from the outset. Municipalities will need to be able to depend on funding programs from the federal and provincial governments to make this strategy succeed.
Providing additional density in exchange for new affordable units is one rather crude way of providing a financing mechanism for the low-income units. Because the developer can realize more profit if additional density is allowed on a site, this can be shared with the housing program of the municipality in various ways. Some units in the project could be dedicated to a city non-profit agency, at no cost, to be used for the life of the building, to meet the needs of low-income households within the project. This is a relatively painless and cost-effective strategy from the city's standpoint. However, there is always a trade¬-off whenever densities are increased, because the building bulk, massing and design characteristics affect the locale. But as long as the urban-design objectives are carefully balanced with affordable-housing goals, creative win-win situations will result. Still, the number of affordable units that can be built this way will be very small, unless there are compatible funding programs to stretch the effectiveness of the strategy.
Another way to use municipal planning powers is to outlaw policies designed to prohibit affordable housing in certain communities. Subtly, zoning laws can act as invisible walls that effectively exclude certain people from communities. One of Ontario's first zoning bylaws prohibited Chinese laundries in the exclusive neighbourhood of Rosedale in Toronto. Exclusions in those days were rather specific and were not outlawed by any charter of rights. These days, the exclusions are indirect. By defining lot sizes and other criteria about the homes that can be built, a neighbourhood can virtually prohibit many low-income people from ever having a chance to Jive there. Usually, there is a strong community concern to "maintain the character" of the neighbourhood. Maintaining a neighbourhood feel and character is important. But most neighbourhoods are changing steadily. The key for municipal policy should be to ensure that the changes open possibilities for all residents, not just some.
Here are just a few specific techniques to accomplish this: permitting second suites, stimulating main-street redevelopment and enabling infill redevelopments. All are ways to allow changes that can help the housing crisis while preserving the essence of a neighbourhood's physical characteristics.
Many homes in Canada have a second unit for a renter, an in-law, an aging grandparent or a young family getting started. Some have more than one unit. Technically, such an arrangement usually requires municipal government approval, but many people simply set up the second suite and get on with providing the housing. In a way, it's a good thing that people take this particular law into their own hands: second-suite housing has added many affordable units that were not being created in any other way. Second suites usually have rents that fall well below the open market's rates. They require no government subsidy to be affordable to many tenants otherwise at risk of homelessness. Because second suites are usually in homes where the owner lives as well, the quality and safety of the accommodation is usually not too bad-and is sometimes very good. The second suite also makes the home more affordable to the owner as well - indeed this is often how a new owner is able to cover the mortgage payments. The downside is the possibility that the second suite will be substandard, dangerous or unhealthy, because it has not been permitted in the zoning bylaws of communities and therefore may not meet municipal codes.
The answer to this problem is to permit second suites as a matter of course, anywhere. This makes sense for another reason. Decades ago, when most of the housing in Canada was built, families were larger. There were more kids at home. The number of rooms per capita was much lower than it is today¬ - the same floor space used to house more people. Do we need all this extra housing space with an aging population - especially when empty nesters' children have flown the coop, and with new families having fewer children than the baby-booming families of the postwar era? Probably not. Why not let people in their homes decide themselves if they want to fill their residence with people, the way it was when it was initially built? In this sense, the second suite is really just a reorganization of the living space to handle the number of people for whom the house was originally designed, but in two living units rather than one.
This very sensible and remarkably inexpensive plan - to permit second suites as a matter of course in all zoning bylaws¬ was put in place in Ontario in the early 1990s. Then a newly elected Mike Harris Conservative government rescinded this permission, forcing each of the several hundred municipalities in that province to consider reinstating the open zoning for second suites. The new provincial policy was supported by some of the most exclusive neighbourhoods whose leaders opposed "tenants" in their communities. The major private landlords were not pleased with the permissive second-suite laws either, because these apartments were renting at rates below their apartments - potentially pulling down the rents they could charge. The last thing these private rental organizations wanted was competition from hundreds of thousands of enterprising homeowners putting up drywall and installing additional bath¬rooms to allow a tenant to be housed at reasonable rates.
Toronto City Council approved introducing second suites into every neighbourhood with a very strong majority vote. Many people were surprised that council was willing to face the wrath of the residents' groups who were leading the charge against the idea. I like to believe that it was because of the commitment that council has made to address the homelessness issue. The city's planning staff had estimated that this initiative could produce 2,000 additional affordable units a year - without a penny of government funding. I argued that this amounted to 160 units a month. "Imagine," I challenged my fellow councillors, "we are willing to open fifty new hostel beds each month, but we are being urged by some not to pass a bylaw allowing 160 new affordable apartments to be created by our fellow citizens in their homes at no cost to government!" The bylaw passed. A few residents' associations from affluent areas challenged the bylaw through the Ontario Municipal Board. They failed and second suites have started to blossom.
Modified development charges, lot levies and taxes
Local governments often charge new developments for the costs of installing various services and supports. These lot levies and development charges could be reduced or waived, to encourage affordable housing. The costs of new services would still be faced by the municipality as a whole, but there are savings to a community with adequate affordable housing. Reduced emergency¬ shelter and support-service costs for the homeless and poorly housed can help to offset the value of the waived fees. Several cities have decided to adjust or forgo these fees completely for affordable-housing projects. More need to consider doing so. Leaving these fees in place amounts to a financial barrier to affordability in a community - more subtle perhaps than zoning, but equally devastating and unjust.
Creating and Protecting Affordable Housing
A healthy housing sector in any country today would have four key components:
- rental housing
- ownership housing
- social housing with a mix to include low-income households
- support for people who need special assistance to live independently
All these parts should be linked so that people can move through their phases of housing needs smoothly, over the years, as circumstances change. We would all agree that no Canadian should have to worry about whether adequate housing will be available. So how can we create the healthy housing system that would provide the security that all Canadians have a right to?
To answer this question, the FCM's National Housing Policy Options Team joined with the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association to convene a round table of Canada's top housing experts in the spring of 2,000. Emerging from this session were some key principles:
- Recognize that housing is a fundamental right and that all governments are morally obligated to ensure their citizens have access to safe, sound and affordable housing.
- Allow for the development, where feasible, of collaborative intergovernmental mechanisms to ensure equivalent and equitable levels of housing assistance across all provinces and territories.
- Recognize that sound, safe, affordable housing is a critical foundation for individual and community health and well-being, particularly for children.
- Ensure that affordable housing is financially sustainable with finite levels of government financial contribution.
- Optimize the use of existing assets, including the stock of social housing developed over the past 40 years.
- Recognize and rebuild the non-profit and community¬ based delivery infrastructure, which was created in Canada over the past four decades.
- Leverage the participation and involvement of the private sector.
- Emphasize the development of responsive local initiatives - initiatives designed and delivered locally, building on local resources and partnerships bur supported with flexible funding from federal and provincial governments.
- Recognize local conditions and encourage local creativity and resourcefulness.
- Where possible, assist, facilitate, support and encourage recipients to graduate from reliance on assistance.
Our work at the FCM led us to propose the following frame¬work for the development of a National Affordable Housing Strategy, to make sufficient new and existing housing affordable to achieve the goals we set for Canada:
- Flexible Capital Grant Program for Housing - a program of locally designed and administered initiatives supported by a federal or joint federal/provincial capital fund
- A Private Rental Program - to encourage private rental production
- Creation of Investment Pools of Money for Affordable Housing - to attract new funding for the development, acquisition or rehabilitation of affordable housing
- Provincially Administered Income Supplement Programs - to help tenants who are unable to afford market rents; this program would complement capital grants, to ensure that new housing would reach those most in need
• In rural areas, where municipal governments have less infra¬structure to put programs together, groups of municipalities (or even provincial associations of municipal governments) could be given the resources to do the job. In all these models, the key would be to have municipalities work in partnerships with the local organizations and community groups. No massive central bureaucracy is going to do the job well. But the decentralized delivery system will require that communities be given the training, monitoring and accountability tools they need to excel.
Here is how the decisions could be made for the foundation funds to municipalities:
- clearly identified criteria (e.g., households needing assistance, housing conditions)
- municipal agreement to some level and type of participation
- the development of a local housing strategy
What kind of projects would be funded and what guidance would be given to communities to be sure that these dollars would be well spent?
- Flexibility is key, so that different cities and towns can address their own needs and priorities. Some might need additional affordable housing; others might need upgrading of existing housing. The capacity of housing builders in the community will have to be considered. What is the capacity of the non-profit or private-sector builders to do the job?
- Capital grants would be given for new construction for non-profits and co-operative rental housing projects in order to reduce rents.
- Capital grants for the acquisition and upgrading of existing affordable rental units could be permitted where this is cost-effective. FCM analysis shows that in some markets in Canada, this may be a very efficient use of resources in light of the rapid escalation of rents in substandard private-sector buildings.
- Rehabilitation of affordable housing could be supported by grants and forgivable loans, expanding the RRAP model.
- Foundation funds could be used to help low- and moderate-income tenants to purchase a home, thus freeing up the rental accommodation, as well as providing long-term security for families who might otherwise never get access.
- Granting initiatives would be designed to help community groups work with the people being helped by the program. These at-risk or homeless people would also have support and opportunities to earn income and, if it works out, become more self-reliant in the community.
- A portion of the funds should be earmarked for building the capacity of communities to design and implement local initiatives.
Next, we need to determine the cost of this essential tool. To this end, respected housing economist Steve Pomeroy was asked by our team to evaluate scenarios. In all cases, he was ask to target 20,000 units of new affordable rental housing each year for 10 years, in order to meet the objectives set by the FCM in its effort to reduce the crisis by half in a decade. He found that there were several ways to lick the affordable-housing problem, but fundamental issues emerged. Some provinces have much higher land costs and construction costs because of their relatively hot economies. As a result, producing a new unit of affordable housing in one of these provinces can be much more expensive than in others. To illustrate: a capital grant adequate to bring down rents in a new unit (so that low-income households could live there) would require a subsidy of $131,000 in Ontario. Alberta units would need $107,119 and B.C. apartments would require $103,457 to achieve an equivalent situation for one of that province's households. On the other end of the cost spectrum would be Quebec, where the housing market and costs structure is so different that the same objective could be achieved for $48,000 a unit. While this differential could cause some inter¬provincial consternation, shifts over time in the economies of provinces would accomplish some equalization as the years pass.
Rising rents in combination with falling incomes for so many Canadians are the driving forces behind homelessness and the affordability crisis.
How can we tackle rising poverty in the midst of business¬-media reports of a thriving economy? Millions of Canadians have experienced the loss of full-time employment to part-time, lower¬-paid jobs. All over the world, the same trends are pervasive. This is what I have been describing as the growing prosperity gap. As wealth and its creation are transformed into speculative paper assets that can be traded at will in a massive gambling game - to which few have access - there are growing pressures to squeeze ever-increasing profits from the operations of all firms. These must come from increased "efficiencies" in the extraction of value from the foundations of production: labour, natural resources and technology. So wages and employment are forced down, creating increased profitability for shareholders - a direct shift of wealth from the lower to the upper end of the economic spectrum.
Jim Stanford, a research economist for the Canadian Auto Workers and a Globe and Mail columnist, recounts the fallout from CN Rail privatization in his book Paper Boom. Ten thousand well-paying jobs were cut at a time of chronic unemployment and falling incomes. "The privatization of CN Rail in 1995 is often heralded as a fantastically successful economic initiative. To be sure, the private company has been a hit with investors, whose share values tripled in the three years after privatization.” Good for the investors, but bad for the workers and their families. I've since talked with some of these former railway workers, broken and struggling with their demons, in Toronto's shelters for the homeless.
National anti-poverty strategies have been developed by many groups in Canada since Parliament adopted a resolution in 1990 to eradicate poverty by the year 2000. Virtually all contain the call for a major investment in affordable housing. Increasing the minimum wage, restoring the cuts to social assistance programs (unemployment insurance, disability pensions, welfare programs, etc.) and establishing a nationwide child-care initiative also need to be included in the strategy. Finally, new economic instruments must be created to stem the upward flow of wealth. Investments in public ventures to lever private funds ¬(such as those suggested by the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives) could become the centerpiece of an economy that is more balanced, just and effective at meeting Canadians’ needs and hopes. A comprehensive poverty-reduction strategy would need to include many elements, from housing to child care, from home care to minimum-wage laws and from employment-insurance reform to training programs.
Some believe that market forces produce the best results in virtually all sectors. So are democratically chosen governments allowed to act? Faced with such eventualities as homelessness, are we not driven to the conclusion that one purpose for national governments should be the crafting of "systems of survival" for their people, as Jane Jacobs once said? When it comes to the basic needs of people in just about any national community, the nation-state should be charged with the authority and obligation to step in with corrective measures. National politics has much to do with the allocation of collective resources of society. The question is whether they will be allocated to ensure that every child, mother and father has certain basic necessities at hand, irrespective of personal circumstances.
Once upon a time, this kind of thinking was quite common within Canadian governments and most provincial governments. And Canada was not entirely out of sync with other Western nation-states in proposing ideas and the policies to back them up. But with the rise of globalized economic thinking, any process that might distribute resources in any fashion other than the rough-and-ready mechanism of the marketplace came to be viewed with disdain. And along with this change, values began to change dramatically in government.
Commenting on the housing field a generation ago, one of Canada's most committed housing experts of the past 50 years, Albert Rose, caustically observed,
The mystery is that a nation which by every physical, social and statistical measure is among the best-housed in the world cannot maintain a sufficient supply of dwellings to meet the needs of approximately one in every ten of its population, and that another three in every ten experience increasing difficulty in meeting their needs within the housing market. How can this nation convert or divert its resources, wealth and riches to the solution of a problem which rests within one of the three elements in living standards [the other two being food and clothing]?
When Rose was writing (1980), the first food bank was opening in Toronto and there were few homeless citizens having to sleep outdoors. Church-basement flops had not been invented. No one had been reported freezing to death owing to a lack of residence. No First Nations teenager - stranded in big-city Canada and pregnant - had lost her life under a bridge. Yet Rose's questions are even more powerful today: "The issue becomes one of social versus individual responsibility." Rose was writing at the height of the government housing program initiatives. He was able to say,
One issue has certainly been settled during the past twenty-five years. Canadians are no longer afraid of government interference in the housing market, of vast governmental allocations of funds or of a public role in the development and allocation of housing accommodation. Subsidy is no longer a dreaded word to those who must be taxed to assist the dependent poor, the working poor and the working class.
Rose was too complacent. Attitudes have swung on the social¬-versus-individual-responsibility pendulum to the point that public opinion is being driven back towards the notion that our nation must act. The sheer sucking sound of the vacuum created by the Mulroney and then Chretien governments' withdrawal from housing issues woke-up many. Pressure produced some haphazard initiatives. However, the Harper government stopped the gathering momentum. At least it did not cancel the creation of the affordable-housing trust that I had negotiated with Paul Martin. Still, a national housing policy is needed now more than ever.
Few would accept that community groups, charities and municipalities alone should (or can) be left to address the crisis. Canada stands alone among developed countries: all other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nations and our NATO allies have national housing strategies; we have none. I never thought I would be suggesting that we consider (let alone copy) American urban policy as embodied in the actions of the U.S. Congress. They have beaten us to the punch in many ways with their significant investment in housing for the lowest-income Americans. Perhaps their concern is more than altruistic. Americans have learned that healthy cities for investment are healthy cities for inhabitants. Canadians have not.
From Downloading to Uploading
As federal and many provincial governments were cutting housing funding in the 1980s and 1990s and downloading responsibility for housing to municipalities, a common refrain was heard: municipal government is closest to the people and is best able to determine its specific housing needs. There's a large element of truth to that, of course, but municipalities don't have the financial resources of provincial and federal governments. So, they are stuck with the problem without being given the resources for the solutions.
That's where the Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto comes in. The Blueprint is a dynamic new action plan released by the Wellesley Institute in 2006. It builds on the strengths and commitments of local governments to create effective partner¬ships with senior levels of government, community organizations and the private sector to end homelessness. The Blueprint is backed by more than 100 pages of detailed statistical and policy analysis.
It sets a new model for the sensible and practical uploading of housing costs back to federal and provincial governments, where the responsibility belongs. Local governments would then be free to use the various legislative and funding tools to get the job done in their local communities. Here's an excerpt from the introduction to Toronto's Blueprint:
Homelessness has a devastating impact on Toronto. More than 30,000 women, men and children crowd into the city's homeless shelters annually. Many thousands more sleep on the streets or join the ranks of the "hidden home¬less." There are about 70,000 households on Toronto's social housing waiting list. And, on the brink of homelessness are 150,000 households paying more than half their income on shelter.
Homelessness and insecure housing are triggering a health crisis: The lack of safe, affordable housing leads to increased illness and premature death. But it's not just the homeless and inadequately housed who are suffering. Toronto's affordable housing crisis is disrupting neighbourhoods and threatening the city's competitiveness in the international economy. It is costing taxpayers $159 million annually just for homeless shelters and services.
Homelessness has been growing rapidly, almost six times faster than the overall population. In 1960, there were 900 beds in the city's shelter system and 1.6 million people living in Toronto. By 2006, Toronto had 4,181 shelter beds in a city of 2.6 million. The face of homelessness is changing as more families and children line up for shelter."
The Blueprint has a two-part plan. First, thousands of people staying night after night in Toronto's homeless shelters would be moved to vacant private rental housing. They would receive a rent supplement to cover the cost between what they are able to pay, and what the landlord is charging as rent. Rent supplements are far less expensive than shelter beds. Second, the Blueprint sets out a 10-year strategy to build more affordable and supportive housing, to deal with others parts of the local housing crisis. Much of the methodology for the Blueprint is similar to the work that we did at FCM for the national housing strategy. So, it's no wonder that Toronto's Blueprint has drawn support from business organizations, faith groups, housing advocates and community groups.
Canadians Can Make Housing Happen
Homelessness seems to create a slow burn among Canadians. Years ago, shoppers would have walked on by or scoffed at the street people who occasionally held out a hand for spare change. Now they are becoming angry at government indifference to the growing destitution amid the accelerating affluence.
In May 2007, the Canada West Foundation - a Calgary ¬based policy institute -released the results of a survey of residents of six large western Canadian cities, plus Toronto. It confirmed the results of many earlier polls. The majority of Canadians are concerned about growing homelessness. A majority of Canadians understand that housing is the solution to homelessness. And a large and growing number of Canadians think that their elected officials are not engaging the problem and doing a poor job. Complacency is collapsing and a quiet sense of activism is brewing. It took some people dying on streets to get us there. That's not something to be proud of, but at least Eugene Upper's death and that of others like him will have significance.
What Can Individual Canadians Do?
For starters, we simply cannot afford to do nothing. It's too expensive. As a Toronto housing expert once put it to me, "For every dollar not spent on housing, it takes eight dollars to bring people back to housing." Once people have been pushed or allowed to fall out of the world of the securely housed, the downward spiral precipitates social and personal financial costs just to cope. It then requires more financial investments and immense support to bring someone back to the point that he or she can function again in a new home.
There is a "payoff' of sorts: someone is making money from homelessness. It's the sector of our economy that actually benefits from the artificial shortages of accommodation, because it boosts profitability. The relatively small number of large firms that direct these housing markets, by virtue of their size, are the giants that must be brought to heel somehow. This is why public policy and community-based solutions are legitimate and important in any attempt to deal with the housing challenges.
I've coined the term Lilliputianism from the name of a group of people in Jonathan Swift'sGulliver's Travels. We must be like these tiny, fictional people who tied down the giant traveller, Gulliver. He seemed far too huge to be subdued. Our giant is homelessness and affordable housing. Collective action can bring about the changes we need. Consider what some Canadians are doing. My guess is that you can find, among these samples, at least one or two ways to pitch in.
Nearly everyone in Canada has seen people who are homeless¬, but do you know a homeless person? Why not start by joining the thousands of volunteers in many communities who help out in emergency programs and services? At least pay a visit to a shelter to experience what it's like. Then pass along your experiences to family, friends and neighbours. Tell your story. Invite others to join you next time.
Volunteers will tell you about the terrific satisfaction they receive from being involved, but they'll usually also tell you about some homeless person who completely changed their views about homelessness. For people who have lost so much of their personal identity and security by losing their home, meaningful contacts with others are important-to help re-establish their identity, self-respect and sense of capability.
• Talk shows are everywhere. You can use their flexible formats for your "personal advocacy" moment. Pick up the phone. The rather amazing Oprah Winfrey has put forward her resources. More important, she called on her viewers, readers and fans to join in with money and sweat to support Habitat for Humanity and build housing for low-income families to own, in every state in the U.S. Habitat for Humanity is also active in most parts of Canada. If you like the idea of swinging a hammer on a Saturday afternoon as your contribution to solving the housing crisis, the nails are waiting. Be sure to swing a figurative hammer at the stalled political process while you're at it.
• Link your efforts to the national housing initiatives being developed by the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association and the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada.
Canada has two national groups that work together to end homelessness. The National Housing and Homelessness Net¬work links together homeless people and front-line advocates from dozens of Canadian cities. The National Coalition on Housing and Homelessness brings together the leadership of national housing organizations, faith networks and many others. The two groups work together to press for a comprehensive and fully funded national housing strategy.
Many provinces and hundreds of local communities have their own housing networks. Chances are, there is one in your neighbourhood. Check around. Call your local church, mosque, temple or synagogue. Call a local housing provider or community legal clinic. Search online. If you cannot find an existing group, then call together your friends and neighbours to create your own local organization. Then link to the provincial and national groups to share information and work together on common campaigns.