Story of change

From a National Housing Strategy to the Right to Housing

Published on 24/05/2016

In April 2016, I participated in the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) Conference where I connected with a variety of stakeholders on the issue of affordable housing. The conference included insights from journalists, all three orders of government and housing advocates from communities across Canada. It offered a space for policy discussions, networking opportunities, and a chance to explore best practices from different parts of Canada – and beyond.

Here are some of my takeaways; many of which are key issues that are currently top-of-mind to housing advocates.

National Housing Strategy met with hope and skepticism

During the panel “A Post-Budget Analysis – Applying Federal Policy Change to the Municipal Housing Agenda,” Pamela Hine from the Yukon Housing Corporation moderated a discussion with Jeff Morrison, executive director of CHRA, and Carole Saab, Senior Director, Policy and Government Relations, Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), about how to best leverage the “down payments” promised in the federal budget.

The panel left the audience both hopeful and skeptical. Hopeful that this was the beginning of a long-term relationship with the federal government, yet wary that this government would have the resolve to fund housing into the next decade as needed.

This led to a question about the promise of a National Housing Strategy. One audience member pointed out that if we want to own the strategy we have to ensure opportunities for all voices to be heard.

The good news is that many municipalities have already developed strategies with broad consultation. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to keep a firm grip so that the strategy remains in the hands of community stakeholders.

The right to housing

A panel of activists and thinkers from across Canada (BC, NWT, ON, and QC) wrestled with the idea of “What Does the Right to Housing Look Like in Canada?” Panelists shared a variety of perspectives: urban, rural, and northern as well as a First Nations’ point of view. They were in agreement that we do not currently have the right to housing in Canada. But because Canada is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, they also agreed that the country needs to think of housing as a right.

If Canada had an articulated and enforceable legal right to housing for everyone, as has been introduced in other jurisdictions such as Scotland, it would be easier to work on and implement promising housing strategies. Housing First, for example, moves people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, subsequently providing them with necessary supports. Yet as promising a solution as Housing First is, this approach is not the same as the right to housing. In fact, to be successful, it relies on the enforceability of the right.

The discussion concluded with a delegate from the Aboriginal Housing Management Association commenting that with the federal government’s nation-to-nation focus, First Nations groups might have the best opportunity to lay the groundwork to achieve the right to housing as a policy.

Urban renewal: examples from Paris

Generally all major urban centres have seen double digit increases in prices of housing and appreciation of property, as this article in MoneySense shows. At the conference we heard that without policy and resources that address urban change, people will be dislocated, leaving families living far from work, school and healthy food.

It was fascinating to hear that Paris has recently decided to increase the amount of social housing to 30 percent as a way of mitigating gentrification in the downtown core. As well, the Paris Transportation Workers Union developed housing in a variety of neighbourhoods so that workers could live near their work. In Toronto this would mean a TTC employee who works in Scarborough living in Scarborough instead of Etobicoke.

The Paris experience also builds on the idea of aligning goals and activities such as creating access to social housing, reducing of greenhouse gasses by lower travel times and distances and leveraging asset development based on pooling of resources.

Showcasing good housing practices in Montreal

A definite highlight of the conference was the mobile tours which introduced delegates to different Montreal neighbourhoods.

The first tour, Strategies for Inclusion of Affordable Housing in New Residential Developments, showcased a range of social housing, co-ops, and mixed development below market rate condominiums with social housing units on a 1:3 ratio. For me, the most impressive aspect was the investment in housing at the Rosemont metro station with below market rate condos, social housing and an amazing co-op with geothermal heat, solar dryers, and AutoShare cars, all within 100 metres of the metro station and a brand new library across the courtyard.

The second mobile tour, The End of Shelters – A New Vision of Emergency Services and Access to Permanent Housing, started at the Brewery mission. We were introduced to the process that men and women go through as they access shelter, move to transitional housing and then get a unit relatively quickly, depending on the issues they have.

We also visited two organizations in Point Saint Charles. The first was Ril Point Saint Charles, a non-profit working to improve housing for the residents in the area. We then visited Batir Son Quartier, a collaborative non-profit that has developed 10,000 units of housing, much of it cooperatives, while focusing on its mission to serve grassroots organizations with strong memberships. I loved this organization; it was focused, humble and knew who it was serving – the residents of Point Saint Charles.

Overall the congress was one of the better conferences on housing – perhaps because we seem to have a government that is acknowledging its responsibility for investing in a housing future. Similarly, the representation of delegates from across the country and especially the number of First Nations providers was encouraging.

My hope is that many of the connections that were formed will lead toward:

  1. establishing a platform that stakes claim for the upcoming consultations on a National Housing Strategy; and
  2. developing a codified right to housing which could potentially enshrine a national housing program with long-term investment horizons.

The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) is a national organization with the mission of ensuring that all Canadians have an affordable, secure and decent place to call home. 

Victor Willis is the Executive Director at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC).

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