A pair of black, very fancy high-heeled shoes. Image: Chrystia Freeland/Twitter

I was a street nurse in 1993 when the federal government eliminated Canada’s national housing program. I had no idea. I was not following federal politics closely and there was no public outrage or demonstrations that I was aware of.

The result was a tsunami of homelessness that within five years qualified as a national disaster, declared by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, many municipalities, and hundreds of organizations.

In subsequent decades I made it my business to learn more. I learned that governments employ the dizzy-making political strategies of smoke and mirrors and funding reannouncements.

I also witnessed repeated federal housing budgets that failed to deliver on promises to re-introduce a national housing program.

I was able to join many housing experts, including Michael Shapcott and Professor David Hulchanski, to meet with just about every federal housing minister over the years: Diane Marleau, Alfonso Gagliano, David Collenette, Steve Mahoney, John McCallum, Joe Fontana, Diane Finley…. the list is long.

They often made promises and in one case had tears when they called me to say they had not been able to sway cabinet to put housing dollars in the budget.

Hulchanski reminds me that Canada was funding an average of 20,000 new social housing units annually for three decades before the Liberals killed that program. That was an average of 3,900 new social housing units per year for Toronto alone. 

Today we are essentially in a housing deficit of 560,000 units (28 years x 20,000 units). But it’s worse than that. Between 2011 and 2016 Canada lost 322,600 affordable homes while only 20,000 new affordable homes were built. Many were demolished to build condominiums. Many were lost when weak tenant protection laws allowed landlords to raise rents.

We are in a housing emergency worsened by the pandemic — both its economic ravages but especially its predatory attack on people living in inadequate, overcrowded houses, often in racialized communities.

So, this week’s federal budget, while hopeful on the child-care front, was a kick in the a** by a pair of very pointy shoes.

In fact, I can’t get over the pictures and video of the shoes that Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland posted on Twitter. In keeping with the tradition of finance ministers buying new shoes to wear on budget day, Freeland bought a stylish pair of high heels, albeit from a Canadian shoe retailer. They are not the shoes of a worker in an assembly plant, a health-care worker, or an essential worker. More than anything these shoes demonstrate the stark divide between the government and the people.

I’m not going to do a detailed critique of the housing announcements in the budget because I can’t. I will rely, once again, on David Hulchanski.

Hulchanski points out that:

“[t]he only program that directly funds supportive housing and potentially some social housing is the Rapid Housing Initiative, which received an actual $1.5 billion in new money (over two years). That funding is for the entire country, though will mainly benefit geographies/ridings the Liberals are focussed on (Vancouver and Lower Mainland of B.C.; the greater Toronto region, especially the City of Toronto; and Montreal.”

Ten mainly minor initiatives were also announced, some spread out over seven years; the largest is not even budgetary funding, but a loan program.

Canadians are so polite. Most of the national housing organizations responded to the budget with comments about welcoming this or that piece and then polite concerns about what was missing, as if we weren’t in the middle of a humanitarian crisis.

It was left to Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) from Quebec to spell out what the housing portion of Freeland’s budget funded. I consider FRAPRU a sister organization to the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which sadly closed its doors in 2012.

In a media release FRAPRU points out that the budgetary measures “will not allow the ambitious objectives set out in the National Housing Strategy to be achieved.” According to FRAPRU, most of the investments planned in the initiatives other than the ICRL (the French acronym for the Rapid Housing Initiative) are intended mainly for the developers of private housing and encourage the creation of housing whose rents are much too high for most tenants. 

FRAPRU points out that the housing crises experienced today by the populations of Quebec and Canada, the health crisis, and others to come, would have required investments comparable to those that Ottawa made in the early 1980s.

Those were investments that allowed the building of co-op housing, housing for seniors, accessible housing, student housing, supportive housing. Look to your own community. It happened there.

Housing equals health.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Image: Chrystia Freeland/Twitter