The Ontario Human Rights Commission, an independent agency that reports to the provincial Legislature, released a dynamic new report today called “Right at Home” that is both historic and ground-breaking. The report draws powerful links between international housing rights – which have been ratified by the Canadian government – and Ontario’s desperate crisis of housing insecurity and homelessness. Most importantly, it sets out a framework of action starting with a call for a national housing strategy (Canada is one of the few major countries in the world without a national housing strategy), then sets out a series of practical actions aimed at all levels of government, the Ontario government in particular, partners in the development of affordable housing, social housing providers, private-market housing providers, service providers and the Ontario Human Rights Commission itself.
“Housing is an internally-protected right,” notes the OHRC. The international right to adequate housing was first set out in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago (and it was a Canadian, John Humphrey, who played a key role in preparing that document). The human right to adequate housing is set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – ratified by Canada – along with dozens of other covenants, treaties and other legal instruments (most of which Canada has also ratified).
So, if housing is a fundamental human right, and governments have accepted that they have an obligation to help to realize that right when they ratify international legal agreements, then why is there widespread and growing housing insecurity and homelessness in Ontario and across Canada?
The problem is the disconnect between housing rights and housing realities – and that’s what the Ontario Human Rights Commission is seeking to bridge. Politicians recognize the right to housing when they sign international documents, but then ignore those rights when they craft domestic policies. The widespread cuts to housing funding, gutting of programs and downloading of housing from federal to provincial and then municipal governments not only helped to trigger widespread housing insecurity, but it is also a fundamental violation of the basic international standards in housing rights. In recent years, a series of United Nations’ decisions have condemned Canada for falling short in its obligations.
The OHRC report is not just a grand statement of values, but includes practical actions that seek to end discrimination in housing, poverty, lack of funding and services and other barriers that prevent hundreds of thousands of Ontario households from realizing their right to an adequate, affordable home.
The Wellesley Institute has been calling for a rights-based approach to housing strategy since the release of our “Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto” in 2006. Affordable and adequate housing is not only a practical necessity, but it is one of the most important determinants of health. Poor housing leads directly to poor health and premature death. Recognizing housing as a fundamental human right provides a solid foundation for a local, provincial and national housing strategy that is comprehensive and fully-funded.
Last fall, the Wellesley Institute helped to co-ordinate the civil society portion of the Canadian fact-finding mission of Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. Several hundred people attended a public forum with Mr. Kothari and heard about housing challenges, and housing solutions.
In our community-based research, we work with a variety of groups to help them to tell important stories and propose robust solutions. OHRC Chief Commission Barbara Hall cited “We are Neighbours”, a research study by the Dream Team supported by the Wellesley Institute, in her comments to launch the “Right at Home” report.
In late June, the Wellesley Institute co-sponsored a major forum on inclusionary zoning with the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre. In that forum, planning experts set out the rationale for a set of municipal planning rules that would insure that low, moderate and middle-income households can find a home in neighbourhoods throughout Toronto.
The OHRC housing rights report comes with a commitment from Chief Commissioner Hall that the commission will meet with provincial politicians and take other steps to have its recommended actions adopted. The OHRC has other on-line resources on housing rights.
Statistics Canada has reported that the cost of shelter is the single biggest expense for Canadian households (based on median expenditure per household), which means that affordable housing is not only top of mind for most people, but should be of more importance to politicians.