As 2011 draws to a close, and 2012 beckons, a healthy and affordable home remains out of reach for millions of Canadians. Housing is about people – their lives, households, communities and health – and the year-end numbers tell a compelling story about housing in Canada in 2011.
Housing costs outpace household incomes
While the recession of 2008/2009 has been officially over for some time, the economic shock waves continue to batter communities, especially on the housing front. The costs of housing – both the direct costs (ownership prices, private market rents) and related costs (especially energy) – continue to outpace both the overall rate of inflation, and also the incomes of low, moderate and even middle-income households.
The austerity agenda embraced by almost all orders of government, combined with continued restrictions in the charitable sector and the relatively slow growth of innovative financing in Canada compared to our partners in the US and the UK, have put severe pressure on affordable housing providers. New development continues to be sluggish – well below the growth in household formation and the pent-up need for affordable homes in almost every part of the country.
The Wellesley Institute’s Precarious Housing in Canada set out the facts and figures about housing and homelessness, including the strong links between housing and health. A good home is one of the most important requirements for a long and healthy life and is critical to advancing the health of the entire population. Precarious housing and homelessness not only threatens the health of people who directly experience housing insecurity, but those two – combined with poverty, income inequality and poor health – affect all of us.
Still no national housing plan for Canada
Canada is the only major country in the world without a national housing plan. In early 2009, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council – the highest human rights body in the UN system – did a thorough review of Canada’s housing and other international human rights obligations. In Canada’s formal response to the highly critical UN review, the federal government acknowledged the need for more action to address precarious housing and homelessness, and promised to work co-operatively with the provinces and territories to achieve better results.
The federal Parliament came the closest it has come in two decades to adopting a call for a national housing plan when Bill C-304 passed first and second reading, and was amended by committee and sent back to the Commons for final consideration. While a majority of MPs backed the draft legislation, third reading was stalled by the federal government and the bill died when Parliament was dissolved for the national election. Towards the end of the year, MP Marie-Claude Morin announced that she would re-introduce the bill to create a national housing plan for Canada.
On July 4, the federal, provincial and territorial governments announced that they had reached an agreement on the final three years of the cost-shared affordable housing initiative. While it may not seem momentous that the three orders of government announced they were going to keep a commitment they made two years earlier, but in an age of austerity and multiple cutbacks, the announcement was welcomed with some relief. The agreement gives the provinces and territories even more “flexibility” to direct housing dollars to a variety of needs. The almost total absence of any public accountability for federal, provincial and territorial housing investments under previous FPT housing deals going back to 2001 raises concerns that it will be hard to assess and evaluate any results.
Needed: An adult conversation about numbers
Canada does a poor job of tracking the diverse range of housing numbers that are required to intelligently assess housing need, shape appropriate policy solutions and provide accountability for results. We rely heavily on one composite indicator – Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s core housing need – which in turn relies on Statistics Canada’s mandatory long-form census (which has been cancelled by the federal government in favour of a voluntary survey). Core housing need is only measured every five years – which is an eternity in public policy timing. It only measures three factors – affordability, suitability and adequacy – and relies significantly on self-reported data.
In October, the Wellesley Institute published a discussion paper by housing expert Steve Pomeroy with the goal of stimulating an adult conversation about housing numbers and housing policies. The many dimensions of housing need require more explicit attention, and composite indicators can sometimes mask important detail.
And now, a year-end romp through some housing numbers:
- $1.9 billion: That’s this year’s federal housing investments through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, as reported by the spending estimates. CMHC housing investments are down a whopping 39% in one year (down from $3 billion last year). Among the programs facing the biggest cuts: 97% cut to the federal affordable housing initiative; 94% cut to federal housing repair and renovation programs. The feds say the massive cuts are due to the “scheduled termination” of the two-year federal housing investments in the 2009 “stimulus” budget. In its January economic action report, the federal government proudly proclaimed that its housing investments were leveraging an impressive 1.5 times jobs and economic impact – three months later those housing investments were sharply curtailed.
- 603,600: That’s the number of low and moderate-income households that are assisted under federal housing programs, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Even though housing need has been growing since the start of the recession in 2008, the number of federally-assisted households has dropped by 22,700 since 2007. Even worse, CMHC predicts that the number of assisted households will be cut by 62,800 by 2015 – a 10% drop. As the number of assisted households is falling from 2007 to 2015, CMHC reports that its comprehensive income (the amount of surplus after Canada’s national housing agency has collected its revenues and paid its bills) will double from $870 million to $1.6 billion.
- 16,000 to 23,000: That’s the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimate of the number of new rental homes required in 2011 to meet the growing housing needs of low, moderate and middle-income Canadian households. Canada’s conventional private rental universe barely grew during 2011 as demolitions and conversions threatened to outpace new construction. The federal government funded 1,054 new affordable homes in 2010 (the 2011 numbers will not be available until summer of 2012) – way down from the more than 12,000 homes funded annually when Canada had a national housing plan in the late 1970s and 1980s. Growing need for rental housing and stagnant or falling supply pushed Canada’s national rental housing from an unhealthy 2.9% in the fall of 2010 to a painfully low 2.5% in the fall of 2011. Average rents grew by 2.7%.
- 27% cut: That’s how much the federal government has cut on-reserve housing programs this year, according to the spending estimates. Federal spending was cut from $215 million last year to $156 million this year. News of the appalling housing conditions in Attawapiskat put on-reserve housing horror stories back on the front pages towards the end of the year, but missing from the coverage and political finger-pointing was the news of the sharp cut in federal on-reserve housing investments. Many First Nations and other Aboriginal peoples live off-reserve in remote, rural and Northern communities, plus urban areas. Canada has not had a national Aboriginal housing strategy since the national housing programs were cancelled in the 1990s. The 2009 federal stimulus housing investments included some Aboriginal housing dollars, along with the 2006 two-year housing investments, but both of those programs have been terminated by the federal government.
The Wellesley Institute’s Canadian housing and homelessness e-map has grown to include 273 links to housing and homelessness initiatives in every Canadian province and territory (and you can add your projects too!).
Download Affordable Housing A Year in Review PDF