The Ontario government opened the current session of the provincial Legislature on Thursday, November 29, with a promise to “begin work” on “reducing child poverty” by developing a poverty reduction strategy that would include “more affordable housing”. This promise needs to be matched with funding and programs before it will have any impact on actually reducing poverty in Ontario.
Even by the usually vague standards of Throne Speeches, the latest speech – which sets out the legislative priorities of the provincial government – raises more questions than answers and repeats promises that the Liberal Party made during the recent election campaign. There has been no progress, since then, in filling in the critical details of targets, timelines, process, funding and programs.
Here are the four key sentences from the Throne Speech on poverty and housing:
“A new cabinet committee will begin work developing poverty indicators and targets and a focused strategy for making clear-cut progress on reducing child poverty. The strategy includes a plan that would provide dental benefits to low-income families, and builds on measures already in progress. These include boosting the minimum wage to $10.25 by 2010, increasing child care spaces and providing more affordable housing. Your government will also fully implement the new Ontario Child Benefit, raising it to $1,100 per child.”
Poor children, who appear to be the focus of the new cabinet committee and poverty reduction strategy, deserve significant attention, but they aren’t the only poor people in Ontario. Using Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-offs (one measure of poverty), there were 1.8 million Ontarians below the poverty line in 2005. Slightly more than one-quarter of them were under 18 (474,000 children), about 9% were seniors (169,000), and fully two-thirds (1.15 million) were adults between the ages of 18 and 64.
So, by all means, poor children should be a major priority, but also poor seniors and poor adults.
The critical shortage of affordable housing (and the high cost of existing rental and ownership homes) is one of the most important factors in generating poverty in Ontario. And “providing more affordable housing” will not only benefit low and moderate-income Ontarians, but it will also help create healthy communities and stimulate the economy.
“Indicators”, “targets” and a “focused strategy” are very important, as the Throne Speech promises, but there’s no substitute for money. Funding new affordable homes requires a renewed investment in affordable housing, something that has eluded the Ontario government in recent years.
The Ontario government invested $29.8 million on affordable housing in fiscal 2005, cutting back to $18 million in fiscal 2006, before ramping back up to $29.9 million in fiscal 2007, according to Spending Estimates from the Ministry of Finance.
In 2005, the Ontario government signed a new affordable housing agreement with the federal government, and promised to spend $250 million in provincial dollars up to fiscal 2008. So far, it has only spent about $48 million – or one-fifth of the amount it was supposed to spend under the terms of the 2005 federal-provincial housing deal.
More than 80% of provincial housing spending is devoted to support for existing public, non-profit and co-op housing plus financial support for the residential tenancy board. A significant amount of provincial housing programs are funded with federal dollars. In 2007, the Ontario government announced a housing allowance plan for 27,000 households which is funded entirely with federal dollars.
Under the federal-provincial affordable housing program (launched in November of 2001), the Ontario government reports that, as of October of 2007, a total of 10,345 new affordable homes had been funded. This includes:
3,896 new homes that have been built and occupied;
2,348 new homes that are under construction; and,
4,110 new homes that are in various stages of development.