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Opinion

Governments’ refusal to think differently is making our housing problems worse

Published on 30/11/2022

Have you heard this one: How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time!

We’re not sure if this one has made the rounds of our federal, provincial, and municipal leaders. Because if the elephant was the housing crisis, they would answer:

Take the smallest bites you can, and chew as slowly as possible. When you notice that your bites are not affecting the elephant, that in fact the elephant is alive and well – and growing! – do more of the same.

Recently, it seems like our governments can’t stop talking about the elephant that is the housing crisis. Yet, the housing crisis continues to grow, and governments at all levels continue to take the same small, ineffective bites they always have. They have been doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s not working. Governments refuse to think differently about the problem and how to solve it.

To begin with, they insist on treating the housing crisis as simply a housing supply crisis.

Making the problem all about supply is tempting. As far as problems go, lack of supply is easy to understand, and easy to fix – Canada has an established development industry and good builders that can produce. Focusing only on supply doesn’t challenge our notion of ourselves as a caring and equal society. It encourages us to just build more and not think too deeply about the rest.

But it has not fixed the problem. In fact, it risks missing the point entirely and can even make things worse. The solution to the supply problem has been an uncritical call to “build more.” What’s unsaid but well understood is: Who builds? The private sector. Who do they build for? Middle-income and high-income buyers. Where do they build? Well, if you’re in Ontario, not in urban areas that are close to jobs, schools, health care, transit, public parks and recreation facilities, or your family and friends. Instead, they build more sprawl across ecologically valuable areas and farmlands, without contributing to our overall well-being, and, remarkably, where very few are asking to live.

Letting the market rule has worked for some – people with enough means and, of course, the developers themselves. But it does not address the people who need housing the most – people with low incomes or who are precariously housed – nor the different types of housing they might need, such as rental units. Nor does it address the myriad of factors that make up an adequate standard of living, nor the ways that people can get enough income to afford a home. To divorce housing from all of these other factors makes no sense, and doing so does not solve the crisis of affordable housing and homelessness. That crisis continues to grow.

And people continue to suffer.

This is not how it has to be. Thinking differently about the problem will lead us to different solutions. Defining this as a crisis of affordable housing and homelessness, rather than simply a crisis of supply, will clarify our goals: who we need to target most urgently (people living in poverty), what their needs are (long-term, affordable, and adequate housing), and who is responsible for delivering (all levels of government).

This is not how it’s always been. It feels like a long time ago – the better part of three decades – that the federal government turned the keys for housing over to the private sector. The underlying ethos was that governments should “get out of the way” of the private market.

The last five years have marked the federal government’s return to housing policy in an active form. The National Housing Strategy Act (2019), and its preceding National Housing Strategy, were significant for their recognition that housing is not merely a commodity – housing is a human right.

November 22 was National Housing Day, a good reminder for us to reflect on what has been accomplished, and on the challenges we continue to face. Last year at this time, we looked to two newly minted offices – the federal Minister of Housing and the Federal Housing Advocate – with both hope and trepidation. Would these new institutions bring progress or more of the same?

One year in, the federal minister continues to lack the bureaucratic heft, resources, and accountability mechanisms needed to make or understand progress.

And how should we measure progress?

This is another question that asks us to think differently. Data is important. We have and will continue to advocate for governments to live up to their duty to collect and publish good, timely data. But while quantitative metrics such as units built and dollars spent are important, alone they cannot tell us what progress we have made. For that, we need to look at the impact on people – at dignity, belonging, and well-being. We need to talk and work with people who do not have adequate, suitable, affordable homes. Solving the housing crisis is not about units, it’s about people. It’s about fulfilling their human rights.

The Federal Housing Advocate, for her part, is urging the federal government to change its approach to re-focus on that very point – the human right to housing. She is calling for a substantial revision to the National Housing Strategy. Her recommendations would better incorporate human rights principles and practices, and call for leadership from the federal government and coordination of all levels of government.

Our governments’ insistence on relying on the market to save us has allowed our housing problem to grow into an elephant-sized crisis. If we are going to eat this elephant, we need to invite more than one diner to the table. We need to marshal a variety of eaters to approach it from many different angles. And we must do so now. Because the elephant is growing.

Topic(s)

Housing and homelessness, Human rights

Summary

Governments keep treating the housing crisis as a supply crisis rather than an affordable housing and homelessness crisis, and keep relying on the market to save us.