Banner outside outside a housing ministers meeting in Gatineau.
Banner outside outside a housing ministers meeting in Gatineau. Credit: Cathy Crowe Credit: Cathy Crowe

As a street nurse, I’ve been watching the “housing file” for over three decades. In the federal landscape, it was always clear to me who the minister of health was. But who was their equivalent when it came to housing?

Well, there were Ministers Marleau, Fontana, Gagliano, Collenette, Mahoney, McCallum, Solberg, Finley, Kenney, and Bergen. These are the names of federal cabinet ministers since the 1990s who, supposedly, had responsibilities for housing — or should have.

The list of names is staggering. Their inaction even more so.

One of these ministers had tears of regret when he told us at Toronto Disaster Relief Committee that he just couldn’t convince colleagues at the cabinet table to restart funding for social housing.

Then there was the awkward Jean Chrétien appointment of labour minister Claudette Bradshaw as the minister responsible for homelessness in 1999. What a title — the only one in the world that I know of. As my colleague Michael Shapcott always said, her work made people “more comfortable” in their state of homelessness, but without funding for housing they remained homeless.

These federal ministers with responsibility for housing had a dizzying array of titles. Housing was supposedly in their purview.

The Trudeau government’s 2017 National Housing Strategy certainly gave housing a public relations boost at the cabinet table with the appointment of Jean-Yves Duclos and then Ahmed Hussen as ministers of families, children and social development. Housing was referenced — or should I say, diluted — in both their and several other ministers’ mandate letters.

For as long as I’ve been working on this issue, Canada has never had a distinct federal minister of housing — that is, until last week, when Prime Minister Trudeau named Ahmed Hussen minister of housing and diversity and inclusion.

The decades-long neglect of housing can only have been intentional.

In 1993 Liberal and Conservative federal governments decimated Canada’s successful national housing program, that on average had built 20,000 new units per year. By the late 1990s the results were tragic and have been well documented in films, media coverage, public inquiries, inquests — and on homeless memorials.

Ironically, Minister Hussen immigrated to Canada in 1993, the same year that Chrétien’s Liberal government cancelled spending on social housing and downloaded responsibility for existing and new housing to the provinces.

Within five years the country faced a tragic social welfare disaster that included enormous housing wait lists and mass homelessness. In response, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee formed in 1998 and issued a State of Emergency Declaration naming homelessness a national disaster. They launched a national grassroots network that targeted many of the above-named ministers. This included one-on-one meetings, briefings, disaster tours, protests and presentations at the federal-provincial-territorial so-called housing ministers’ meetings, often with our partners, including FRAPRU, Unifor, and national faith groups.

Our primary demand was that all levels of government spend an additional one per cent of their budgets on social housing. In the disaster committee’s emergency declaration we warned:

“The homeless situation is worsening daily at an alarming rate, as the factors creating it remain unchecked. Any delay in firmly and massively responding will only contribute to compounding the present crisis of suffering and death which is already an epidemic which no civilized society can tolerate.”

Today, 28 years after the program’s elimination, Canada faces a deficit of more than half a million social housing units. This number reflects the loss of 20,000 new units per year, plus the loss of social housing due to gentrification. During these years we witnessed the impact of neoliberalism: privatization, the financialization of housing (see the documentary film PUSH) and further government retrenchment of funding for social programs.

The encroachment of American housing policy into Canada in the early 2000s resulted in the adoption of the U.S. Housing First model. That should have been the first warning that we would end up on a downhill trajectory. When have we ever looked to the U.S. for good social policy?

Housing First essentially rations housing (some even say ghettoizes housing), primarily for people who are chronically homeless with mental health and substance use issues. It serves the purpose of making invisible people who are seen as nuisances and bad for tourism. It supports the ideology that people are to blame for their duration of homelessness, not the state that has left them behind. Housing First pushed the concept of housing as a social good over the cliff.

The simplest way to outline why this is bad is to make the comparison to universal health care. Would we accept that you can only access health care if you have a certain condition and not provide health services for all? The answer is no.

Housing First is formal policy everywhere you look in Canada and its star component is the concept of 10-year plans that purport to end homelessness. These plans, designed over 10 years ago, have been a big failure. Across the country, witness the housing shortages and wait lists, the non-protection of existing affordable housing from gentrification and financialization, the horrendous shelter conditions and shortages, the tsunami of evictions and encampments.

Our country needs a minister of housing. We now have one in name, but with a catchall title that suggests some boxes were ticked off in Minister Hussen’s appointment.

Minister Hussen has now done several interviews and it comes as no surprise that his priorities will follow the Liberal government’s 2021 election platform.

In a recent interview on CBC’s The House he spoke to these issues:

  • housing supply but provinces, territories and municipalities, private and public sector will need to partner
  • home ownership through measures such as the First-Time Home Buyer Incentive program
  • blind bidding and down payments
  • inclusionary zoning that rely on private developers to include affordable housing (“affordable” is undefined) in their developments
  • intensification of housing around transit
  • existing programs such as the Rapid Housing Initiative (a COVID program that built units in 4-6 months), and Canada Housing Benefit (short-term rental assistance)
  • renovictions and foreign ownership

It’s what I don’t hear that alarms me. The Liberal platform did not use the word “social housing” and I still don’t hear it.

We will truly have a minister of housing if the minister’s mandate letter includes funding for social housing and rent-geared-to-income housing, creating a co-op housing stream, providing rehabilitation funds for old housing stock, ensuring that seniors’ pensions are increased so they can afford to stay in their homes, and creating long-term care standards so our seniors can be housed safely in their later years, and the same for home care.

Image: Cathy Crowe. Used with permission.