This is National Housing Week, when advocates call for more action on affordable housing. Usually there is talk of partnerships as the way forward. Today we have an opportunity for a major renovation of Canadian housing policy, in a bold new social partnership, and a new partnership between levels of government.
Too often, the talk of partnerships is about creative efforts by community groups to cobble together resources. Government budgets are tight, developers must make a profit, and local groups lack capital – but if all pull together locally then a few affordable housing projects can be built.
Affordable housing requires more than this. In Greater Toronto, the 40,000 households added each year include people on all parts of the income spectrum and at all stages of life, and include about 5,000 added low-income renters. This is on top of the 111,000 households on the combined housing waiting lists across the GTA.
Our tattered affordable housing policy reflects a non-partnership of shrunken common purposes and resources, arising in the 1990s. Some imagined then that competition in the market could provide affordable rents to low-income people. But it takes money to build new housing, fix older housing, or bridge the gap between market rent and the $500 that a low-income pensioner or low-wage worker can afford.
Our new federal government appears to recognize the issues of money and of scale. The election promise was to spend about $1.4 billion annually on social infrastructure, a large share of it for affordable housing. Although this is only half of one percent of federal spending, it is a meaningful scale. A billion dollars could fund community groups to build about 6,000 affordable rental units, mortgage-free. Or they could do major repairs to 50,000 older social housing homes, or provide affordable rents in the market to 150,000 low-income Canadian households. Or some mix of these.
Spending public money on affordable housing is a social partnership between different parts of Canadian society. Many of us have gained from the great escalator of the rising property market. Developers put years of work into planning and getting approvals for a subdivision or condo project, and marketing and building it, but the profits are handsome. Homeowners in Greater Toronto and most major cities have built up enormous capital assets in their homes, which will benefit them or their children. Affluent people enhance their incomes by speculating in condos.
Others don’t benefit, because they are at the low end of a very unequal labour market, or they live with disabilities, or because as young adults or new immigrants they arrived later and can’t easily catch up. Public spending on affordable housing, just like health care or education or transportation, is a partnership where the benefits of our economy are shared to ensure good quality of life and good health for all Canadians. Housing takes a large slice of household budgets and accounts for a large share of the economy. Affordable, decent quality housing has large positive impacts on health. For these reasons, affordable housing has always had a central place in thinking about the social safety net.
The social partnership must guide the government when it reaches decision points on how to implement election promises in the face of tight revenues and competing priorities. For the past two decades, all levels of government have shrunk the share of GDP and of public spending that goes to affordable housing. This must be reversed.
The second partnership is federal-provincial. The adversarial 1990s pushed down funding and program responsibility to the provinces, and municipalities in Ontario. Those governments now put more dollars into affordable housing each year than the federal government. It is appropriate that provincial and local governments administer most of the affordable housing programs. But the federal government must lead in terms of strategy and in funding.
It will be tempting for the federal government to channel infrastructure funds to new projects that offer good photo ops, while letting federal funding for existing affordable housing continue to decline. The latter is set to shrink by $300 million a year between now and 2019. Little will be gained if ribbons are cut on new projects while older social housing, where over a million Canadians live, is left to crumble. We don’t need a national housing strategy that is a glossy statement of goals, unconnected to funding.
To articulate a new social and intergovernmental partnership, the national housing strategy must cover at least four things. It should affirm the role of affordable housing in the social safety net. It should identify objectives in new affordable housing, affordable rents, and repair of older housing. It should link the vision to specific objectives and to funding priorities – in existing social housing as well as new infrastructure. And, building on a process that must take place between now and then, it should express a new federal-provincial partnership in affordable housing.