June 24-27, 2004 Toronto, Ontario
Lori Brooks, Policy Research Initiative
At the time this article was written, Lori Brooks was an Analyst with the Policy Research Initiative.
During the conference, Adequate and Affordable Housing for All, the housing situation in Canada was often presented in terms of a crisis of historic proportions. Toronto’s affordable housing shortage was compared to a refugee camp, with a major difference being that a camp at least has a level of standards required under UN guidelines. Advocates have also adopted the term “man-made national disaster” in an effort to bring more attention to the housing situation in Canada. By framing it in this way, advocates hope governments will respond with the same sense of urgency as they do to natural disasters.
The challenge of improving government support for housing was directly linked to efforts to raise public awareness. Presenters characterized federal government involvement in housing over the years as having been sporadic and limited at best.1 They noted that the government’s role has shifted to that of a facilitator in supporting home-ownership schemes for first-time buyers and lower-income people through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Other federal programs discussed included the Supporting Community Projects Initiative (SCPI) and Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Programs (RRAP), both under the mandate of the National Homelessness Secretariat.
In recent years, provincial governments have increasingly downloaded housing management to the municipal level. In the absence of accompanying funds, many municipalities have experienced difficulties in coping with the added responsibilities. As a result, the challenge of dealing with the housing crisis tops the current agendas of many municipal governments. Toronto Mayor David Miller addressed the conference in the opening plenary, describing the efforts initiated in 1998 under the Mayor’s Homelessness Action Task Force. These have included eviction prevention, a high level of outreach support, and a controversial project to redevelop the Regent Park public housing community.
Adequate and Affordable Housing for All brought together over 350 delegates and researchers from 40 countries that have been working to develop an understanding of the challenges of housing and homelessness. Representatives from both developing and industrialized countries spoke on their regional as well as global housing issues. The conference was organized by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies under the auspices of the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee on Housing and the Built Environment, co-sponsors included Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the City of Toronto, Social Housing Services Corporation, and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.
The conference had a broad mandate including themes based on raising awareness, gaining understanding, and increasing the impact of housing programs and policies. Considerable focus was also placed on issues surrounding homelessness including a framework on episodic homelessness, presented by Uzo Anucha.
Improved government efforts to address affordable housing needs require a sound understanding of the complex challenges involved. The affordable housing picture is complex. One element is the stagnation, or even decline, of rental stocks, especially at the lowest end, at a time when the economic situation of the most vulnerable in society has failed to improve. Presenters argued that levels of rental stocks have stagnated, because the profit incentives for developers in recent years have been principally in the construction of new homes for ownership and converting old rental stock into new condo units. As a result, while demand is increasing for affordable rental units, the relative numbers available are declining. Due to the increasing demand and declining supply of rental units, Toronto rents increased by 31% between 1997 and 2002. The social housing waiting lists in urban areas continue to grow in the tens of thousands, and shelter use is becoming a more common form of housing, especially for families.2
Discussions about how governments might improve the housing situation in Canada are generally framed in terms of supply-side and demand/ income-side policies. In other words, should policy focus on interventions that address the actual supply of affordable and adequate housing or on improving the purchasing power of housing consumers, by way of vouchers or allowances, in the market as it currently functions? Many would argue that the supply of housing should be left alone, because market mechanisms will find the equilibrium point to best reconcile supply and demand. It was also observed that although the market functions very well for those above a certain income level, if you are poor, the housing market does little to address your needs. The general consensus at the conference was that addressing this gap is the responsibility of the public sector.
With the laissez-faire, non-intervention approach at one end of the spectrum, at the other is the actual construction by the government of units for occupancy by low-income tenants. This, however, often comes in the form of public housing projects that can result in the social isolation of low-income communities, which has occurred along racial lines in the United States.
Between the two extremes of doing not much and building actual units lie several possibilities discussed at the conference. One is a city by-law that requires that a certain proportion of new developments be reserved for affordable housing units. Also included in the spectrum of policy options is the development of transitional spaces, such as emergency shelters, building supportive housing for people with special needs, and partnerships with developers in the construction of affordable housing and co-op units.
From a demand or income-side perspective, policy options include those that will affect what a person can acquire by increasing the amount of money they have available for housing. While social assistance programs take into account housing costs as part of the calculation of benefits, these amounts have not been rising proportionately to the cost of housing, and have therefore become inadequate to meet the basic needs for which they are intended.
One of the most well known demandside policies is the housing voucher for people meeting certain means tests. In some instances, these vouchers will go directly to the landlord, which may consequently pose other problems regarding stigmatization and discrimination. Quebec has instituted an allowance scheme wherein people meeting certain criteria are directly given a cash allowance intended for housing. Such options can be effective when local vacancy rates are high.
Another option that is beneficial for the so-called best-off of the worst-off is home-ownership incentive schemes. Toward this end, CMHC has been developing new financing and borrowing regulations for first-time homeowners. In addition, more innovative programs in the asset-based family have surfaced such as Home$ave by the Social Enterprise Development Incorporation. This program matches savings of program participants, and allows these matched grants plus personal savings to be used toward home-ownership or home improvement goals.
Overall, the main message from the conference was that the best solutions would consist of both supply-side and demand-side approaches. There is no magic bullet. Rather, it is imperative that policy makers recognize the complexity of housing and its interrelationship with poverty, exclusion, work, and income if they are to address the housing needs of lowincome Canadians effectively.
Housing is under provincial authority, thus making involvement in this policy area a challenge for the federal government. Nevertheless, the federal government has actively sought to build affordable housing in urban areas at different times.