With infrastructure cash on horizon, stakeholders sharpen affordability pitch.
Days after PM Justin Trudeau met with city mayors in Ottawa, affordability experts gathered to explore housing's role in other ministry mandates. Photo by Adam Scotti.
As the clock ran down on the new Liberal government's 99th day in office last Thursday, a 10-minute drive from Parliament a group of leading experts on social policies, including housing, mental health, and poverty, spent the day trying to figure out the best way to part that government from its -- or our -- money.
The Trudeau government's first budget is expected in late March and promises to contain $19 billion in new spending on loosely defined infrastructure.
"Clearly a lot of money is set to roll," said Jeff Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA). "And [the government has] made it quite clear they want to collaborate with other orders of government and with stakeholders.''
However, there are also plenty of diverse stakeholders clamoring for a share of that money, for everything from transit to water systems.
Almost 600,000 households are set to lose federally subsidized social housing in the coming decades -- at least 30 per cent of them seniors -- and more than 230,000 people are homeless for at least a part of every year, a growing share of them children.
Co-organized by Tyee Solutions Society, CHRA, Carleton University’s School of Public Policy, Carleton Centre for Urban Research and Education (CURE), Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, and Broadening the Base, the all-day Actions for Housing Now working session held on the Carleton campus brought together some 60 people from the around the broad housing sector -- providers and tenants, social and market housing, financial institutions and green building experts -- as well as unions, criminal justice reformers, aboriginal interests, philanthropic foundations and those serving the most vulnerable.
Their goal: to hone their arguments that money spent on shelter issues would also go a long way to meeting other government priorities, from a new ''nation-to-nation'' relationship with indigenous people, to meeting our climate targets.
It was the second Actions for Housing Now event mounted by Tyee Solutions Society in partnership with the CHRA. The first, in conjunction with Simon Fraser University's Public Square, was held in Vancouver on the eve of the new government's swearing-in, to explore affordable housing solutions for the middle class. Like the first, it was held under the Chatham House Rule that precludes directly quoting or attributing anything said during the sessions; quotes here are from interviews conducted outside or after the event.
Housing's many benefits
The campaigning Liberals made over 300 campaign promises, 120 of which made it into the mandate letters delivered to Trudeau's new cabinet ministers in November.
With so many of the government's goals at stake, and so much competition for the one-time flood of spending, "there's agreement that there needs to be a big-tent, collaborative approach to long-term investment in social housing, and ensuring funding decisions are made right,'' said Morrison.
"Now we need to bring the appropriate evidence to the fore and identify the ways we can make their policies a reality and achieve a community where everyone has an appropriate and affordable home,'' said Mike Bulthuis, an event organizer and executive director of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, which represents 55 organizations serving the precariously housed in the Capital region.
Only three Trudeau ministries received direct social and low-income housing mandates. Indigenous and Northern Affairs was tasked with improving housing for Canada's indigenous people. Families, Children, and Social Development, responsible for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, must prioritize affordable housing, particularly aimed at seniors, and support Housing First and cities' rent-geared-to-income initiatives. And Infrastructure and Communities was instructed to work with the families ministry to establish a national affordable housing strategy.
But housing could play a big role in reaching several other ministries' mandates as well. New housing built to be carbon-neutral could help meet the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change's goal of trimming national greenhouse gas emissions and creating a more sustainable economy. Access to stable housing for ex-convicts makes it far more likely they will be able to participate in the restorative justice program that the Ministry of Justice is mandated to encourage instead of incarceration.
Many who attended last week's invitation-only event made the point however that ''deep-core'' social housing needs can't be segregated from those of working households, especially those earning less than local median wages (the population at the heart of the earlier Vancouver workshop).
''The biggest problem in the indigenous community right now is in the deep core need area,'' said Don McBain, executive director of the Ontario Aboriginal Housing Society, an off-reserve indigenous housing provider. But, he added, there is also a growing indigenous middle class that needs affordable housing too.
''We have to allow them options,'' McBain urged, ''to come from a deep core social housing perspective, maybe to an affordability area, then to a home ownership program, so they can create their own economic base as a family and develop that for their children.''
Nor are federal dollars necessarily best spent only on big-ticket new construction, argued Kate Lambert, a strategic program manager for Ready to Rent BC, who travelled all the way from Victoria to make the case that tenant education was an effective investment in maintaining affordable housing.
''If you have an engaged group of tenants, who knows what they're doing, knows when to call the landlord, knows which issues need to be addressed, you don't lose housing stock,'' Lambert argues. ''You preserve that [invested] dollar. It was worth something 20 years ago, it's worth something now."
Others warned that a rush to greenlight shovel-ready projects mustn't distract from the mandate to develop a comprehensive, long-term national strategy on housing.
And an almost universally shared concern was that the kinds of groups represented in the Carleton campus meeting room have a strong voice at the table when decisions are made about new investment in the social housing that many of them have struggled to maintain in the 20 years since an earlier Liberal government began walking away from its support.
'Change the dynamic'
The main argument for being heard emerged clearly by the end of the day. More than most things, housing makes a difference in almost every other aspect of individual and community well-being.
"The deliverables we are proposing are actually going to change people's lives," said Stéphan Corriveau, general director of Le Réseau québécois des OSBL [non-profits] d'habitation, a network representing nearly 800 Quebec housing organizations.
"If we say, 'We will build 100,000 housing units,' it will change the dynamic in cities all over the country. If we say, 'We'll reduce homelessness,' it will lead to fewer people in the streets."
But to achieve that, Corriveau wants the federal government to get very specific about exactly what housing outcomes it wants its spending to achieve. "I'm nervous about how the money will be delivered," he said. "I don't want the money to be lost in some do-good commitment to just transfer money to provinces or cities to manage without deliverables. The money must be tagged to a commitment."
"I certainly share the hope,'' Corriveau said. ''We've received too many high-level signals from the federal government to ignore it."
Now, he wants team Trudeau to remember that "the nonprofit sector were the only ones who kept the flame alive all these years. Don't forget us now that there's money on the table."