The new year brought skin-blistering cold to many parts of Canada. The extreme cold weather was a somber reminder of the critical importance of good quality, affordable housing for the personal health of individual Canadians, and underlined the value of housing in ensuring the social and economic health of communities and the entire country.
Precarious housing has many dimensions in Canada. While people who are absolutely homeless and sleeping rough on the streets are the most visible, millions of other Canadians suffer from insecure, inadequate and unaffordable housing.
There is a substantial body of research on the health impacts of poor or substandard housing, including the Wellesley Institute’s overview paper on effective interventions for housing and homelessness.
Among the key indicators of Canada’s deep and persistent, nation-wide precarious housing crisis:
- At least 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness annually; and as many as 1.3 million Canadians have experienced homelessness or extremely insecure housing over a five-year period.
- For every Canadian that experiences absolute homelessness, as many as three or more experience hidden homelessness – sometimes called couch-surfing or living in insecure arrangements – for a national total of 600,000 annually.
- About 1.4 million urban households (3.5 million people) are in Core Housing Need, the federal government’s official definition of precarious housing.
- One-in-four Canadian households (3.3 million households or 8.25 million people) pay 30% or more of their monthly household income on shelter, which is the official government definition of unaffordable housing.
The Wellesley Institute’s Precarious Housing in Canada has noted that there has been a steady erosion in federal investments in affordable housing since the late 1980s. In 1991. 1993, 1995 and 2009, there have been new short-term federal housing and homelessness investments, but the overall trend of eroding federal investments continues. In 1990, the federal government invested $1.7 billion in affordable housing which is more than the $1.6 billion that the federal government is planning to invest in affordable housing in 2015, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Over that quarter of a century, growing inflation, an increasing population and growing housing need have all put the squeeze on the shrinking federal dollars available for new affordable housing.
The 2013 federal budget included three specific housing and homelessness initiatives:
- First, a five-year extension of the national homelessness program with a reduction in annual spending from $127 million to $119 million. Annual spending for Canada’s homelessness program has not been adjusted for inflation or the rising national need since the program was launched in 1999.
- Second, a two-year $100 million commitment for new affordable housing in Nunavut, which experiences among the highest construction costs in Canada and also a severe housing and homelessness crisis.
- Third, a five-year commitment to the Investment in Affordable Housing program at $253 million annually – which is to be matched by provinces and territories with another $253 million annually. Although this funding was announced in March of 2013, no money has yet been allocated almost ten months later.
Housing experts have welcomed the federal housing and homelessness commitments from the 2013 budget, but note that the funding promised does not meet the scale of national need, nor does the new funding reverse the overall trend of eroding federal housing investments.
Since its 1996 budget, when the federal government announced plans to wind-down national affordable housing investments, federal housing investments have been on a steady downward trend. The erosion is accelerating as the federal government steps out of its long-term commitment to existing social and affordable housing over the coming years.
The ongoing withdrawal of federal housing investments is much larger than any of the short-term new investments by the federal government in recent years. The latest corporate report from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal government’s national housing agency, reports that:
- Federal housing program expenses (the main funding envelope for existing and new social and affordable housing across Canada) is planned to be cut from $3.04 billion in 2010 to $1.68 billion in 2017.
- As funding is cut, the number of affordable homes supported under federal housing programs is shrinking. From 2010 to 2017, the number of federally-subsidized homes will drop from 613,500 to 492,500. The federal government has not announced any plan to support the 121,000 households who will lose their homes by 2017.
As federal housing investments have eroded, provinces, territories and local governments have been required to make larger investments. As precious housing and homelessness has become more visible in municipalities across Canada, local politicians have called for the federal government to re-engage with other orders of government in developing a comprehensive national housing plan.
The deep and persistent affordable housing crisis has prompted the Federation of Canadian Municipalities – the national group representing local governments across the country – to name Canada’s housing crunch as its top policy priority.
As homelessness and precarious housing remains deep, persistent and costly to individual Canadians and the country as a whole, all eyes will be on the federal government and Parliament in the coming year (which is also the lead-up to the next federal election) to see if adequate investments are made to meet the scale of national needs.
Instead of one-off and short-term funding, the policy focus will be on a permanent, fully-funded national housing plan that engages all levels of government, the non-profit and private sectors, Aboriginal people and others in a comprehensive and co-ordinated plan.