Mind the (implementation) gap: How to realize the right to housing
Without doubt, 2019 has been a historic year for the right to housing in Canada. For the first time ever, we have federal legislation recognizing housing as a fundamental human right. And the City of Toronto has just passed Canada’s first municipal housing and homelessness plan based on the right to housing, developed together with Toronto residents and housing advocates.
So we can allow ourselves to be hopeful that 2020 will be a year of progress when it comes to housing rights. But it won’t just happen – the real work lies ahead.
We have seen time and again that even the best-laid policy plans are only as good as their implementation. The Phoenix pay system to streamline federal payroll processing, the creation of the long-gun registry, and employment equity in Ontario are all examples from recent Canadian history where a gap exists between a good policy idea and its implementation.
For the right to housing to be realized, for rights to be fulfilled in our communities and in people’s daily lives, we will have to mind this “implementation gap.” Here are a few ideas on how we might do that.
Let’s begin with targets. Right now, we have the benefit of momentum, which can accelerate any move forward. But that will only happen when we are clear about where we’re headed and how quickly we want to get there. So we need clear targets not just for the long term, which are easy to put off or ignore, but also targets for the short and medium term. We will need to think carefully about how we establish those targets, and whether they are reasonable, meaningful, and achievable.
For example, the federal government’s current plan includes a target of reducing homelessness by 50 per cent over the next ten years, with investments set to double in 2021-22. Given the magnitude and impact of the homelessness crisis and the resources at our disposal, we have to challenge that target. We need to aim higher. International law requires that human rights be fulfilled in the shortest possible time based on the resources available. According to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 (which Canada has committed to), member nations should ensure access to adequate, safe, and affordable housing for all by 2030. That should be our target.
The City of Toronto has announced a target of 40,000 new affordable rental units in its new ten-year HousingTO action plan, and has stated that annual implementation plans will shepherd this target along. Now, these work plans need yearly targets, designated funding, and clear processes for implementation. Only then can we start to make this right real for those in the greatest housing need.
For work plans and targets to work, we need accountability mechanisms. These must be strong and well led. To be effective, they must be well resourced.
For the federal plan, these accountability mechanisms include the office of the Housing Advocate (to monitor the implementation of the housing policy, assess its impact on rights holders, initiate studies, and make recommendations), and the National Housing Council (to provide advice on how to improve housing outcomes). For the City of Toronto, the office of the Housing Commissioner will work with community groups to monitor the implementation of the new HousingTO plan, and work with City divisions and agencies to ensure that programs advance the principles in the Toronto Housing Charter.
At this early stage, we need to ask several questions about these mechanisms.
At the federal level, we need clarity around the establishment of the Housing Advocate within the Canadian Human Rights Commission, including details on the appointment of the office and its resourcing, as well how systemic issues will be brought forward and addressed. The National Housing Council, envisioned as a body of 15, is now recruiting members after a countrywide call for applications. However, housing advocates have raised concerns about the lack of transparency around this process.
At the City of Toronto, Toronto Council has just passed Toronto’s new rights-based housing and homelessness plan, which now includes the appointment of a Housing Commissioner in 2021. It may take some time to answer the question of the power and scope of the Commissioner’s office, but the office will have to be established relatively quickly if Toronto wants to forge ahead with its new human rights-based plan.
City policymakers will further need to prioritize those in greatest need. We need plans that address the critical nature of homelessness, especially in the winter, with fully funded and resourced emergency services. Particular affordable and supportive housing targets for communities that are disproportionately affected by poverty and housing need — including racialized women, newcomers, Indigenous communities, people with disabilities, seniors, LGBTQ2S communities — will need to be developed and implemented together with community members.
A successful implementation of any right to housing policy also depends on dedicating the maximum available resources to that effort. While fiscal policy requires trade-offs and difficult decisions, our politicians will need to keep people’s inherent rights and dignities at the centre of any budget decisions. That may well mean they will have to rethink spending decisions, or make new ones that will make some uncomfortable. The City of Toronto’s recent proposal to increase property taxes through the city building fund is one such example of a bold move to chart a course forward that both prioritizes outcomes in areas like affordable housing and strengthens the City’s own financial powers.
Finally, no plan will be successful if it doesn’t include the people who are impacted by the decisions being made, in particular those with lived experience of inadequate housing and homelessness. For rights to feel real, to live in our communities, to transform the way our cities work, people must see themselves reflected in the policies being brought forward and play a leading role in defining and implementing those policies. And this is more than a matter of principle. When people engage with human rights and the rights mechanisms being created, when they challenge those mechanisms, when they offer their expertise, we have better solutions.
The recognition of the right to housing in Canada has been many decades in the making. The new legislation and accompanying commitments, as well as the uptake of a human rights framework at the municipal level, could mark the start of a new era of rights-based housing policy in this country. This is a moment of great promise. But if we are not attentive to implementation, we risk losing momentum. Let’s work together to make sure we deliver.