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Affordable housing hurdle will be huge for asylum-seekers

The Chronicle Herald by Katherine Reed 20 November 2015

Intense planning and discussion is taking place, aimed at moving thousands of refugees to Canada. Questions around finding affordable housing for them have come up repeatedly in the public discourse.

I hate to say it, but good luck with that. The bulk of the Canadian housing stock is affordable only for people with incomes well above the poverty line. Most people who live on low income in Canada — as many of the refugees will for some time, presumably — are paying far more than they can afford for housing. At the same time, many live in unsuitable and inadequate conditions. Welcome to 21st-century Canada.

Let me be clear: I am completely on-side with the enormous and noble task of welcoming Syrian people whose lives have been devastated by conflict and political repression. The circumstances they face are astonishingly cruel. This demands and deserves a response by all the wealthy nations of the world and Canada is one of the wealthiest. But forgive me if talk of finding affordable housing for the newcomers strikes me as ironic and terribly naive

Since the late 1980s, I have been observing the evolution of federal and provincial social housing policy. More recently, I’ve researched the history of our housing policy since its inception in the 1930s. Some facts about this history and the current situation would no doubt be surprising to most Canadians, including those who will be trying to house this influx of refugees.

Because of a few recent advocacy initiatives around housing poverty and talk of it in the federal election campaign, many people may realize that Canada is the only wealthy and highly developed nation in the world that lacks a national housing strategy.

The thousands of voices calling for a national housing strategy have been crying out for decades now. Perhaps people remember that in 2007, Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur for the United Nations, came to Canada on a fact-finding mission to document the extent of housing poverty and homelessness here. He declared the situation to be “a national disaster.” Housing advocates were not surprised when very little changed in the months and years following Kothari’s visit.

David Hulchanski wrote in 2007, “Only five per cent of Canada’s households live in non-market social housing … the smallest social housing sector of any Western nation except for the United States.” Hulchanski explained that most of our public investment in housing has been directed toward well-off households, usually with the goal of promoting homeownership and mortgage financing. Lenders, the construction industry, and real estate titans benefited, as have the thousands of middle-class households whose economic prospects were already on the upswing. Large neighbourhoods sprang up in the 1970s, filled with upwardly mobile homeowners.

Aside from the rather mixed blessings of a period of intense public housing development in the 1960s (sometimes referred to as the “slum clearances”), and the heyday of programs that funded the development of social and co-op housing in the 1970s and early 1980s, relatively little has been done to alleviate housing poverty.

Programs have been piecemeal, sporadic and invariably under-funded. In 2005, Jack Layton and his NDP colleagues in Parliament negotiated an infusion of $1.5 billion into construction of affordable housing in exchange for supporting a minority Liberal government budget. That was highly unusual.

Given Canada’s housing policy history, it was no surprise in May 2014 when members of Parliament voted 147 to 124 against a motion to renew long-term funding for social housing. A year earlier, Bill C-400, which called on the Canadian government to create and implement a national housing strategy, was also struck down.

Social programs in Canada date back to the turn of the 20th century. Worker’s compensation, unemployment benefits, old age pensions, student aid, welfare and health care came along gradually, usually beginning modestly in one city, province or region of the country.

Once the individual and collective benefits of these became apparent, the national government took them up and made them an enduring part of Canadian life; just as other wealthy nations did. The lack of an adequate response to housing poverty is the gaping hole in this (albeit less than perfect) social safety net.

Settling the Syrian newcomers will be no easy task. The biggest problem is likely to be finding suitable rental housing for them that won’t eat up almost all of their monthly household incomes — just like most of Canada’s poor.


Katherine Reed is a writer and researcher living in Antigonish.