We can’t simply build our way out of our housing crisis
Who decided that private developers would be the ones to get us out of the housing crisis? And that building was our only way out?
It’s not as if leaving housing to the private market has worked out for us so far. Quite the opposite. While the private market serves some parts of our population well, it has utterly failed many people – namely, anyone who cannot afford to get into the housing market in the first place. The number of people who fit into this category is growing at a scary rate and includes both people who wish to buy a home and those who rent.
Reading the papers these days, you would think that municipal government regulations are what’s causing the housing crisis. You would think that the problem boils down to a lack of product (single family houses and condos, mainly). By that logic, it does not sound unreasonable that we can solve that problem by getting city bureaucrats out of the way so that developers can make more product available to consumers. It has narrowed our scope of action to this one thing: build more. And it has narrowed down who is responsible for this one thing: “the market.”
But housing is not merely a commodity, and people are not merely consumers. Housing is a basic human right, and the problem is that so many people in our society cannot access their basic human right.
Defining the problem as one of human rights compels us to see housing as more than a building. It is a home. A home where a person or a family lives, which provides safety and security, a sense of belonging, and the opportunity to participate fully in society. When people have a stable and suitable home, they are more able to become part of their neighbourhood, which comes with all sorts of positive individual and social outcomes. Being forced to move because your home becomes unaffordable disrupts opportunities for the positive relationships that are fundamental to society.
When you define the problem this way, the approach to finding solutions necessarily starts to look a little different. It starts to take into account the many strands of a person’s life that have impacted their inability to find or remain in decent housing – income adequacy, employment opportunities and working conditions, access to education and training, access to health and mental health care, and strength of family and social ties, for example.
It starts to look at all of the social systems that constrain and affect people’s options. It focuses on the people who cannot access their basic human rights and focuses our actions on having a positive impact on their lives. It clarifies that our governments are responsible for acting. It raises the level of urgency, and the scope and scale of action – governments must use all of the tools they have available to try to solve the problem.
Each level of government has a range of tools it can use. At the provincial level alone, the government can: institute rent control and vacancy de-control to protect current tenants; use provincially owned lands as sites of permanently affordable housing; fund and operate supportive housing; increase access to mental health and addiction services; increase income supports, including social assistance and disability supports; and ensure that employers are paying workers enough to afford a place to live.
Ontario has both enormous fiscal capacity and a range of legislative and regulatory powers that it can put behind the systems that affect housing in this province. Working together with the federal government and Ontario’s municipalities could make these tools even more effective. The province could also use its fiscal powers to facilitate building of affordable housing. Banks often require builders to demonstrate a 24 per cent profit margin in order to get financing. The province could replace or underwrite the banks so that builders can lower this profit margin.
Our next provincial government needs a workable plan to make progress on housing. That plan must be comprehensive and resourced to the max.
It’s not that those who want to increase housing supply are wrong. More new housing will help if it’s the kind of housing that is currently lacking, built for the people who need it most. Various studies indicate that 40 to 50 per cent of people in Canada are living paycheque-to-paycheque. That is, nearly half the population of this prosperous country are income insecure. Plans for new housing must prioritize these people.
Private developers don’t have to be the bad guy in these conversations. They have a role to play, but we must be clear about what that role is, and how it fits into a larger plan that addresses the complexity of the housing system and all of the people who live in our province. We can’t let the conversation about building new housing distract us from all of the other actions that need to take place alongside it.
It might sound complex. Some would say too complex to wrap up neatly in an election slogan. But it’s simple: every person needs a home, and it is our government’s job to use all of the tools it has to make sure that people can make that happen. The people we put in charge of governing us have the tools, including a skilled and professional public service, to do this. We, the people who elect these leaders, need to be clear that we expect them to do it.