Another election, the same housing crisis

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Apartment building in London, Ontario. Image: Scott Webb/Unsplash

As another federal campaign begins, it's time for me to dust off my previous rabble.ca article about the state of housing in Canada, update the dates, increase the numbers, and press "send."

Example -- in my September 20, 2015 pro bono column, I wrote about Toronto's 8,000 name waiting list for supportive housing for people with mental health issues and/or addictions, the number having quadrupled in the previous five years. This week, I found a CMHA report online from 2018 saying over 13,000 people were waiting for supportive housing in Toronto despite the strong‑on‑paper message from the Liberals in their 2015 campaign that they were going to solve the housing crisis. There is no doubt the number has continued to grow, with the pandemic knocking down the mental health of many Canadians.

So what's happened in the intervening years? And what's being promised this round? 

The November 2017 National Housing Strategy, released by the Liberal government two years into its first mandate, was exciting. It seemed to herald a return to a heady time of housing development -- a time discussed almost in hushed tones by housing lawyers and developers from the '80s and early '90s. With Liberals in power provincially too in 2017, we excitedly awaited dollars to flow in numbers to make a real difference to the lives of underhoused Canadians.

And we waited.

And we waited.

And -- nothing.

The Liberals were returned to power in 2019, a minority this time, and with the support of the New Democrats, we renewed our enthusiastic anticipation of a housing boom that will make those wait‑list numbers go down. Of course, the pandemic intervened and housing precarity and homelessness became even more evident with very public tent cities popping up in large centres like Toronto and Vancouver. Yes, there were band‑aids offered but they had little impact against the increasing numbers of people suffering the impacts of COVID19. Toronto proudly says its council has approved 250 modular homes on city-owned sites in 2020 and 2021 with 100 of those already housing people who were experiencing or at risk of homelessness. It's laudable that they were able to do this in record time and during a pandemic but it's just 250 homes in the face of estimates of 35,000 people in Canada who experience homelessness on any given night. 

At the same time, in major centres the cost of purchasing homes rose dramatically. In Weston, the inner suburb of Toronto where I live and an area known for its affordability relative to other parts of the City, a realtor left his report in my mailbox intended to entice me to list. It shows the average price of a three‑bedroom detached house like mine having rocketed to over $1 million (I bought for about a third of that a decade ago). Despite being a partner in a Toronto law firm, I can no longer afford to buy my own house. Surely that cannot be right.

I just don't feel like anyone has a real plan for getting out of this mess.

  • The Liberals have just half a page on their website entitled "Our Plan for Affordable Housing" in which they continue riding the wave of their NHS by talking about how they will "prioritize significant new investment in affordable housing and seniors facilities." They're going to "undertake a review of escalating home prices in high priced markets -- like Vancouver and Toronto -- to determine whether speculation is driving up the cost of housing;" and "eliminate all GST on new capital investments in affordable rental housing." But haven't they already had a six year run at improving things with little result?

 

  • If elected, what would the New Democrats give us? They've come out of the gate making housing a key issue in their platform with Jagmeet Singh unveiling his plan at a press conference just three days into the campaign. Their written plan is long enough to require a little scrolling on the page, suggesting they are more serious about getting Canadians housed.  They start by promising "at least 500,000 units of quality, affordable housing in the next ten years, with half of that done within five years" through a mix of partnerships with other spheres of government and non‑profit private housing, touting the spillover benefits to the economy of the initiative. Seems like everyone is up for waiving GST these days and the NDP will also give up its GST on the construction of new affordable rental units.  They will also offer rent relief to families who are already paying too much, although the details of this program are not provided.  The NDP recognises that ownership shouldn't just be a dream and will therefore re‑introduce 30-year terms to CMHC insured mortgages on entry-level homes for first time home buyers.  And this is really going to tip the balance in favour of buying -- they double the Home Buyer's Tax Credit to $1,500 to help with closing costs, with a view, I guess, to every little bit counts.  New Democrats see that other forms of ownership might help ease the pressure and talk about facilitating co‑housing, even ensuring that CMHC will back co‑ownership mortgages. Finally, like the others, the NDP is keen to reduce foreign ownership; they'll do it with a 20% foreign buyers' tax. 

 

  • The Conservative Party was quick to launch its 163 page magazine‑style "recovery plan." Glossy and full of pretty pictures, there are but 2.5 pages of text on the issue of housing under the heading "A Detailed Plan to Tackle Home Prices." The title, the text, and even the photo of a suburban subdivision with grass and trees, give the strong impression that their focus is more about home ownership than housing people; they talk primarily about real estate drivers, mortgage affordability, and foreign speculation.  

 

  • The Green Party has no platform posted yet but one of three pre‑election calls to action on their website asks Canadians to urge Trudeau to declare a national affordable housing and homelessness emergency. The site goes on to state: "We want Parliament to adopt a national moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, and to create a residential arrears assistance program to protect all those who risk being driven into homelessness due to eviction from accumulated arrears." Truth is, the glacial pace of Ontario evictions caused by pandemic tribunal closures is tantamount to a moratorium on evictions. Regardless, as some of you know from my March column, it's my view eviction moratoria are a naïve solution, causing, in some cases, more problems than they solve. And no eviction moratorium will expand the housing supply.

 

  • For fun, I checked the People's Party of Canada which has 16 headings under the title "Platform." None of them refer to housing.  I searched the site for the word "housing" and came up short. 'Nuff said.

With each of the four national parties apparently committed to doing something about the housing crisis, housing advocates from leading organizations such as: Canadian Lived Experience Leadership Network (CLELN), the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, the Canadian Housing & Renewal Association, and the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada have banded together to get housing central on the parties' platforms. Their own platform includes a need for at least 50,000 supportive housing units in the next decade to take a bite out of the 13,000 wait list in Toronto and elsewhere. Eight out of 10 Canadians agree that housing should be a priority.  Check out Votehousing.ca and do your bit to get your local candidates talking about this issue.  

Pass it on.

Celia Chandler is a lawyer at Iler Campbell LLP in Toronto, Ontario.

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.

Submit requests for future Pro Bono topics to [email protected]. Read past Pro Bono columns here.

Image credit: Scott Webb/Unsplash

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