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Opinion

Successive budgets show affordable housing is clearly not a priority for Ontario

Published on 07/04/2021

Do you know what makes up less than 0.3 per cent of your budget? I’ll take a guess — probably not. Even if you know, chances are that you’re not paying much attention to this small fraction of your budget.

It’s no wonder, then, that successive Ontario governments have not been paying attention to the affordable housing crisis in the province. From 2014-15 to 2018-19, at a time when housing unaffordability soared, the government spent less than 0.3 per cent of its annual total expenditures on housing programs meant to support Ontario’s most vulnerable people.

This flagrant underspending tells us where the government’s priorities have been, and unfortunately, continue to be.

This estimate builds on the Maytree Foundation’s analysis of the Financial Accountability Office’s (FAO) recent review of housing and homelessness programs in Ontario. In the report, the FAO unpacks how much different orders of government have been spending on housing programs in the province, and provides us with important information that often hides behind opaque provincial accounting methods.

Ontario’s accounting of housing programs includes investments from the federal and provincial governments. It does not include municipal government investments, which are the largest source of spending on housing programs. Over the course of six years (from 2013-14 onwards), Ontario spent $1.7 billion on its housing programs. During that time, the federal government spent $3.3 billion, and municipalities contributed $6.2 billion.

While these may look like significant numbers in isolation, they are cumulative totals over six years, and not annual spending. That’s important.

On average, the FAO estimates that between 2014-15 and 2018-19, Ontario spent $856 million per year on housing programs. That’s less than 0.7 per cent of Ontario’s total budget expenditures during those years, including both federal and provincial investments. Examining the FAO’s report alongside other public data shows less than 0.3 per cent of the province’s own spending went toward housing programs.

No matter which way you look at it, these are shockingly low figures. The consequence? In 2016, about 33 per cent of renter households found themselves in core housing need, mostly because of the unaffordability of rents. From 2011 to 2018, the social housing wait-list grew by 27 per cent. Today, over 185,000 households find themselves on the wait-list.

In its recent budget, the Ontario government acknowledged how important housing is to our well-being and announced spending to keep people in Ontario’s shelter system safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this investment is critical, it’s myopic. The average cost of operating a shelter bed in Toronto during the pandemic increased to $80,000 per year. On the other hand, the operating costs for one supportive housing unit would be $24,000 per year. The government missed an opportunity by focusing on a short-term solution.

Instead, the province asked its federal counterpart to increase investments so that the province could get its “fair share” of funding based on the share of households in core housing need. But this obfuscates what’s happening — the reality that Ontario is planning to spend less on housing programs moving forward, not more.

The FAO estimates that spending in Ontario’s housing programs will average $696 million from 2019-20 to 2027-28. On average, that’s a $160 million annual shortfall, compared to spending in the years before 2019-20. Even if Ontario maintained investments at the insufficient levels that it had previously, an additional $1.2 billion could go into housing programs over eight years.

Though the Ontario government is using the right rhetoric to signal that it understands how critical housing is to our dignity, it’s clear that it has no intention to address our housing crisis.

If budgets tell us what we value, it’s clear that affordable housing hasn’t been a priority for recent Ontario governments. We can do better and ensure that everyone in Ontario has a safe, affordable and secure place to call home.

Originally published as an op-ed in the Toronto Star.

Topic(s)

Government spending and tax, Housing and homelessness

Summary

If budgets tell us what we value, it’s clear that affordable housing hasn’t been a priority for recent Ontario governments. We can do better and ensure that everyone in Ontario has a safe, affordable and secure place to call home.