Celia Chandler
Affordable housing for all: Let's make it an election priority

| September 24, 2015
Affordable housing for all: Let's make it an election priority

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Last week, I attended the AGM of Accommodation, Information and Support (AIS), a supportive housing provider for 104 Torontonians who have experienced mental health challenges and homelessness; many AIS tenants attended the meeting. Although AIS tenants have not had easy lives, they are lucky to have found permanent housing where they get the invaluable support services they need to live independently. Even as a mature organization with a 44-year history, AIS struggles to find money to create more housing. Each organizational resource ‑- financial and human -‑ is stretched to capacity, with no way to meet the burgeoning demand. The waitlist for people with mental health issues and/or addictions in Toronto has over 8,000 names -- quadrupled in the last five years. 

This is just one example of the critical need for a changed affordable housing landscape in Canada.  

In June, this column set out the four major parties' positions on housing, and urged housing advocates and concerned members of the public to make affordable rental housing an election priority. But sadly, it has not (yet) made it to the middle of the election stage. 

This, despite significant efforts on the part of the affordable housing sector to draw attention to the issue. Efforts like:

  • Released on September 10, the Rental Housing Index breaks down rental housing statistics by riding and highlights the crisis renters face, especially in urban areas. For example, more than 22 per cent of renter households in the Toronto pay more than 50 per cent of their income on rent; in Greater Vancouver, it's 24 per cent.  
  • The Co‑operative Housing Federation of Canada launched which among things showcases events coast‑to‑coast to raise the profile of housing. 
  • The Canadian Housing Renewal Association (CHRA), a key participant in the Vote Housing For All Network, has developed its compelling bilingual "housing for all" video, and will soon unveil a series of election podcasts about housing. CHRA has also conducted a series of roundtables across the country ‑‑ a marked departure from the usual all‑candidates format. Instead, each party's local candidates are invited to meet with local housing leaders to discuss issues around affordable housing development and so on. Those candidates who win will take to Ottawa their newfound interest in, connection to and knowledge about local, affordable housing. Those candidates who don't win will surely be community leaders with a better understanding of the current housing crisis.

So what are the major parties saying about housing? Let's take a look. 

The Liberals

Justin Trudeau announced his party's housing policy on September 9, 2015 in a riding to watch, Spadina‑Fort York ‑- Adam Vaughan is hoping to maintain against strong NDP opponent, Olivia Chow. Vaughan has long connections to affordable housing in his past role as Toronto city councillor, and would, we assume, take the housing portfolio, should he win his seat and should the Liberals form government. 

With investments in a National Housing Strategy, the Liberals commit to: a new, 10-year investment of nearly $20 billion in social infrastructure; renewing current co‑op housing operating agreements; significant investment in affordable housing and seniors facilities; making some surplus federal lands and buildings available at low cost for affordable housing in communities where there is pressing need; and a pledge to direct CMHC to provide financing to support construction of new, affordable rental and co‑operative housing for middle- and low‑income Canadians.

The New Democrats

Although they have not yet launched a formal housing platform, all signs point to the fact that, if elected, the NDP would have policies supportive of affordable housing. The budget document, released on September 16, 2015, includes housing in the category "help where it's needed most" but no details are provided. In the last session, Marjolaine Boutin‑Sweet introduced a private member's motion for the maintenance and expansion of investment in social housing, with a focus on renewing the expiring operating agreements. Prior to the writ dropping, New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair committed to renewing operating agreements for housing co‑ops. Vancouver East NDP candidate Jenny Kwan indicated that if elected, her party will reinstitute a national housing strategy, invest $2.7 million in affordable (including co‑op) housing over the next four years and put a focus on incentivising construction of 10,000 new affordable units: details of the incentives were reported by Mulcair in June -- people investing in rental housing could avoid capital gains if they put their profits back into affordable rental housing. The commitment for 10,000 units was reiterated in a party news brief on September 17, 2015. 

The Greens

Elizabeth May launched her party's platform on September 9, 2015. One of its four pillars is "strong communities," which includes a commitment to a national housing strategy to meet housing needs for all -- including seniors, youths and the "stressed middle class." In its online budget, the Green Party commits to building 20,000 new affordable housing units annually and renewing another 8,000, and providing subsidy to an additional 40,000 low‑income households for the next 10 years. The budget provides further resources specifically for Indigenous communities, noting that First Nations communities are in dire need of renewal.

The Conservatives

The Conservatives do not have a strong track record on issues related to affordable housing and have released no related policy position during this campaign. When they do give the issue a passing glance, it is in the context of affordable home ownership -- important, yes, but not the whole picture. A Conservative backgrounder touts the various tax policies related to home ownership that will be continued or expanded on with a re‑elected Conservative government.  

In a CBC radio interview, Andrew Saxton, incumbent candidate for North Vancouver, kept within the party's framework and focussed on home ownership; when pressed about what a re‑elected Conservative government would do with respect to affordable rental housing, he said: "we believe decisions like that need to be made at the local level -- that is provincial and municipal jurisdictions... it's a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach." When asked specifically about the expiring operating agreements for housing co‑ops, he said, "we believe in assisting the provincial government and municipal governments in creating rental stock." Seems like we will see more of the same, should the Conservatives win another term. 

For a more in-depth look, party by party, see the Homeless Hub's analysis.

September 23 to 30 marks Canada's "National Week of Action on Housing." If you care about the state of affordable housing in Canada -- as you should -- this is the time to redouble your efforts to get candidates' attention on the issue.

Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice.

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