Housing insecurity and homelessness have significant health impacts. The poorest neighbourhoods have the worst quality housing and the worst health profiles. Health impacts of poor housing include increased incidence of illnesses and premature death. Children who live in homes that are damp or moldy have a greater risk of chronic conditions such as asthma, and these conditions can last a lifetime. Critically, the death rate for homeless people is eight to ten times higher than for housed people of the same age. Having a safe and affordable home is an important foundation for good health.
Now is an important window to improve housing – and health – for Ontarians. The province is working on its new poverty reduction strategy and municipalities are currently submitting their 10-year housing and homelessness plans to the province. Improving housing and reducing homelessness are essential cornerstones to a health-enhancing poverty reduction strategy. Municipal plans have the potential to similarly enhance housing and health at the local level.
The province should take this important opportunity to ensure that health is consistently addressed in the Poverty Reduction Strategy and in the municipal housing plans. The new Poverty Reduction Strategy should coordinate with the existing Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy and provide the tools and resources that municipalities need to ensure that better housing is available to the most vulnerable and health-disadvantaged communities.
A major housing challenge is the lack of safe and affordable private rental units in Ontario. Currently, there is little that municipalities can do to encourage – or require – developers to include affordable units in their projects. The Planning Act allows developers and municipalities to strike individual deals on particular projects, but this has not led to consistent results. The Poverty Reduction Strategy should give municipalities more power to demand affordable housing. This would be an important step toward increasing Ontario’s supply of affordable housing. The province also needs to ensure that it addresses housing and homelessness consistently and with appropriate support and funding for municipalities.
While a lack of affordable housing is a problem for many Ontarians, some groups are at greater risk than others. It is well established that people on social assistance have incomes so low that it is a struggle to pay their rent as well as other essentials like food. Earlier this year, the province eliminated the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit – a benefit that helped people receiving social assistance to pay for large or unexpected housing-related costs, such as paying their first months’ rent or dealing with a bedbug infestation, supporting them to become and remain housed. The elimination of this benefit has caused hardship for many Ontarians. The Poverty Reduction Strategy should ensure that all low income Ontarians – including people on social assistance – have access to appropriate housing supports.
Ontario can make progress on fixing our affordable housing crisis, but we can’t do it alone. The lack of federal involvement in affordable housing is a major barrier to progress; a national housing strategy that includes consistent federal funding is critical. A lack of federal involvement can’t be a barrier to getting started, but Ontario should continue to advocate for the federal government to develop a national housing strategy in conjunction with the provinces and territories.