Publications, opinions, and speeches
Laying the foundations for accountability on housing
Published on 29/03/2023
This week, Toronto’s City Council will consider proposals for housing that, we all hope, will help the City make sustained headway on our housing crisis, and on their commitment to realizing the human right to housing. The proposals are an opportunity for councillors to ensure that they are meeting this commitment in the following ways:
Government structures should focus on the needs of people. The proposed structures should work together to make our housing systems work better for the people who are most vulnerable. They should keep us moving towards our goals.
In particular, Council will consider two proposals that could make up the cornerstones of the architecture for the human right to housing in Toronto: establishing a Housing Rights Advisory Committee and a Deputy Ombudsman, Housing. These proposals come from the City Manager’s report that Council adopted in July 2022.
Following this report, the purpose of the Housing Rights Advisory Committee is to independently monitor the implementation of the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, to determine its progress, provide advice to Council, and to provide it and Toronto’s public service with insight into the lived experiences of people who are homeless or precariously housed.
The City Manager also proposed a Deputy Ombudsman, Housing – a position that would be situated in the Toronto Ombudsman’s office. It would be able to conduct systemic reviews, undertake investigations, monitor how our housing systems are working, and recommend improvements.
Both proposals have the potential to provide a human rights framework for the City’s actions on housing. Will they be enough?
We recently heard from the Toronto Ombudsman, reporting on how the City evicted residents from encampments in the summer of 2021. The report is instructive, both for its content and for the way it illustrates the Ombudsman’s role and limitations.
The Ombudsman found that the City utterly failed in its duty to uphold the human rights of the people who were living in the encampments that it “cleared” (a polite euphemism for evicting people from their homes and destroying their property). If Council chooses to act on its recommendations, the report will have played an important part in holding the City accountable for this failure.
The report reminds us that the Ombudsman’s role is to look at whether a law was applied fairly, not at whether the law itself is fair. It examines how the City behaved when it evicted residents from encampments, but it does not question the bylaw that gives the City the authority to do so in the first place. In this way, the Ombudsman is more of an impartial arbiter, not an advocate. As such, their role is constrained by existing laws, and not traditionally set up to re-imagine or transform them.
Last year, Maytree and former Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean were commissioned by the City to make recommendations for the role and function of a housing commissioner. Our recommendations drew from experts, City staff and officials, and, importantly, our conversations with individuals and community groups on what they would like to see from the City.
We recommended the establishment of an Office of the Housing Commissioner, with the overarching role of providing an independent locus of accountability for housing in Toronto, reporting directly to Council. The roles and functions included monitoring progress of the city’s ten-year plan, conducting systemic reviews, collecting data and making recommendations, and a capacity to coordinate and support all of the departments involved in housing to ensure that they can and are applying a human right to housing framework to their work. The role must have the ability and capacity to advocate for the human right to housing.
Alongside the Housing Rights Advisory Committee, it should have a mandate and sufficient resources to engage with individuals and communities to advance their human right to housing. Hearing the voices of the people and communities most in need, and including them in decision-making processes, is vital to fulfilling the human right to housing.
If this accountability role is to be invested in a Deputy Ombudsman, Housing, then it needs to be set up for the scope and scale of the task. It should be clearly mandated to take a proactive role.
Accountability is more than pointing fingers. It is what keeps us focused on a goal, what requires us to measure whether our actions are having impact, and what pushes us to move further and faster. Done well, accountability sets us up for success.
What would success look like in our city? At the end of the day, the City will be successful if more and more people have a home that is safe, secure and affordable, where they can live with dignity. If people can participate fully in the decisions that affect them. If the City is equipped to find and pursue effective ways to ensure that adequate housing is available to every person in this city.
To this end, we need to consider how to structure accountability to best support the City to make this happen. The City has shown leadership by committing to the human right to housing. By building the foundational structures that will advance the human right to housing, councillors and the City have an opportunity now to turn that commitment into durable and effective action.
Toronto City Council should lay the foundations for the human right to housing by creating a housing commissioner role that will protect and support people, and set us up for success.