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Opinion

Will appointing a housing “Minister” and “Advocate” be enough to conquer Canada’s affordable housing crisis and let people live in dignity?

Published on 30/11/2021

On November 22, we marked National Housing Day, and this year we could point to progress. The prime minister has appointed a federal minister responsible for housing, and we expect to hear soon about the appointment of a Federal Housing Advocate.

Will these two appointments make a difference?

The answer is not obvious, yet. These new posts could be the beginning of something good. Dedicated leadership on housing has been sorely missing, particularly at the federal level, for decades. A minister responsible for housing could build on the work that the federal government has been doing over the past few years to rectify that long abdication. The Federal Housing Advocate could head an institution that supports and guides the government to ensure that it hears the voices of people who need a home, and that it addresses system-level issues that prevent people from having a safe, decent home.

But that’s not a foregone conclusion. Without the right structures, supports, and a commitment to thinking differently about how we do housing, these posts could be merely symbolic. Or even worse, they could become blockades to meaningful action, by reinforcing rather than challenging the status quo – while at the same time making us feel like something is being done.

We are in the midst of an affordable housing and homelessness crisis. The crisis is deep and wide, reaching across Canada and impacting hundreds of thousands of people. Even before the onset of COVID-19, more than 280,000 people and families were on the waiting list for social and affordable housing across Canada, and more than a million households lived in unaffordable, unsuitable, or inadequate housing. What we need from our federal leaders now is a response at this scale – one that will produce measurable progress towards decent housing for every person in the country, and address the underlying systemic causes of this crisis.

Some of the things that our federal housing leaders will need are straightforward: a clear commitment to principles, supporting institutions and systems, and resources – including dedicated staff and an adequate budget. Without these basics, no one can be expected to make any substantial progress.

Some of these we have, or they are in the works, at least. The National Housing Strategy Act, 2019, set us in the right direction by acknowledging the human right to housing and, by extension, the importance of applying human rights principles to all of our actions on housing. The National Housing Council and the office of the Federal Housing Advocate are institutions that can help to keep work on track, by monitoring our progress and making recommendations for action.

But as it stands, we have a minister responsible for housing but no ministry to go with it. The Minister will be supported by Infrastructure Canada and must rely on its staff and resources for his work. A discrete ministry with a mandate to improve affordable housing and eliminate homelessness, and the budget to go with it, would give the Minister a greater chance of making an impact. So would explicit, tangible support from the prime minister’s office to make sure resolving the affordable housing crisis is taken seriously at cabinet.

Federal leaders will need to be working in concert with other levels of government to succeed. The federal government wields a hefty tool, its fiscal capacity to fund provinces and municipalities. The Minister can make sure that funds come with strings attached: money flows only to those jurisdictions that are using all the tools already at their disposal and are getting results for the people who are in greatest need of a home.

The provinces and municipalities must do their part. Provinces and territories have a similar range of tax tools as the federal government and can use those revenues for housing solutions. The large provinces have significant fiscal capacity and resilience. Municipalities have the power to regulate; for example, they can ensure that residential zoning facilitates or requires affordable housing, and they can ensure that deeply affordable housing, such as rooming houses, are safe, decent places to live.

We need leaders at all levels of government to act at scale and with the urgency that this crisis demands.

What we don’t need is more of the same – the same ways of thinking that led us here. We must stop thinking about housing as a commodity, as an investment vehicle for those who are “deserving,” and as a product best left to the market. Housing is not a product; it is a human right. A safe, decent home is an essential component of our human dignity. Our government has the duty to do everything it can to ensure that every person can realize this human right and live with dignity.

Symbols are important. They point to issues that need our attention. A position of leadership can be a particularly potent symbol – so the appointments of a minister responsible for housing and, soon, a Federal Housing Advocate, are welcome. But symbols alone won’t result in change. To be effective, leaders will need a commitment to human rights principles, the tools and resources to implement those principles, and the ability to show measurable results for their work.

These new federal posts for housing hold promise. Next November 22, will we look back on this year and see that our leaders have fulfilled that promise?

Topic(s)

Government spending and tax, Housing and homelessness, Human rights

Summary

New federal leaders, including a minister for housing, could be the start of something good. Or, they could be merely symbolic. We need leaders to act on the affordable housing crisis at scale and with urgency.