Current Issue: April 5, 2013 Next Issue: September 2013
Advocates of affordable housing won't be celebrating the passage of a national housing strategy this spring as they had hoped.
Instead, they'll be highlighting the issue of affordable housing as publicly as they can.
"We hope to just keep [the issue of a national housing strategy] on everyone's radar and in the back of their pockets so that when a day comes when the Conservatives see it as advantageous, we've set the groundwork for it," says Doug King, one of the founders of the Red Tent campaign.
The Red Tent campaign is a national movement dedicated to persuading the government to take action on homelessness. It was founded by members of Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics when the eyes of the world turned to Canada. Since then, the campaign has gained support and spread across the country.
Last year, it focussed its efforts on getting opposition parties behind Bill C-304, the Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing Act introduced by British Columbia NDP MP Libby Davies. This bill made it to second reading before the 2011 election was called and the bill died.
It has since been reintroduced almost word-for-word as Bill C-400 by NDP MP Marie-Claude Morin of Quebec. But King says he does not expect the bill to be passed as long as the Conservatives have a majority in Parliament.
Despite this, supporters have not given up. They are now circulating a nation-wide petition asking the government to renew its financial commitment to social housing providers across the country — a group that will see federal dollars slipping away in the next three decades.
A sector in need
Back in the 1960s, the federal government entered into long-term operating agreements with social housing providers who charged rent based on the income of their tenants. The government agreed to pay subsidies to these groups for a pre-determined number of years until mortgages were paid off. Agreements typically ranged in length from 35 to 50 years.
But with the release of the 1996 budget, the federal government began withdrawing from areas such as social housing, recreation, labour market training, and forestry and mining development, since these were believed to belong in the provincial domain. The federal government would honour existing agreements to social housing providers, but no new agreements would be signed and no agreements would be renewed.
Federal subsidies would be distributed to provinces and territories through the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
It's very difficult to develop or to operate affordable housing without some form of government support, particularly when you're attempting to serve the needs of people with the lowest income
In the late 1990s, the federal government began signing social housing agreements with most provinces and territories. These transferred administration of social housing resources from the federal government to the provinces. It was believed that having only one level of government involved in social housing would make processes more efficient and give provinces and territories more flexibility to meet the needs of residents.
The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation says the number of housing units receiving subsidies has decreased to about 613,500 in 2010 from about 630,000 in 2006. More agreements will expire in the coming years, sometimes leaving social housing providers in tricky financial situations. All agreements will expire by 2040.
A 2006 report by Steve Pomeroy, an Ottawa-based housing policy research consultant, predicts that about one-third of social housing providers receiving subsidies will not be viable after their agreements expire. Of particular concern are developments that rent 100 per cent of their units to very low-income people at costs proportional to their incomes.
Pomeroy says some of these providers may have to sell units to survive or start renting them out at market value.
"The concern of the advocates and of the sector in general is that there's erosion of the very limited social housing stock that exists," Pomeroy says.
A federal responsibility
The problem of lost social housing is one many believe only the federal government can address.
Christina Maes, policy and program analyst for the social Planning Council of Winnipeg, recently joined the Red Tent campaign because the issue of affordable housing and homelessness is a continuing problem in Manitoba.
"We just don't have enough social housing. We have poor quality social housing," she says. "We aren't a have province and so our government can't afford to pay for housing the way the federal government can."
It's a sentiment echoed by Dallas Alderson, manager of policy and programs at the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association.
"Some have suggested that provinces may be there to pick up the slack, but as we know, provinces have even less fiscal capacity that the federal government, so I'm not sure that's a very reasonable suggestion," Alderson says.
When the federal government signed agreements with social housing providers, it assumed that once mortgages were paid off, social housing providers would be able to support themselves. But Alderson says many social housing units are in older buildings that will require renovations after subsidies stop coming. This may not be possible if rent is coming from very low-income tenants.
A national housing strategy such as the one proposed by Bill C-400 could potentially keep money flowing into the social housing sector to address these problems.
Margaret McCutcheon, manager of policy, research and government relations with the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association, supports such a strategy. In Ontario, there are more than 152,000 people waiting to get into social housing and many more may be eligible. Unless funds are available to build more social housing units, the problem may only get worse.
"It's very difficult to develop or to operate affordable housing without some form of government support, particularly when you're attempting to serve the needs of people with the lowest income," she says. "This money has been part of the system for decades now. To have it decreased and removed from the sector is going to create a shortfall."
Core housing need in Canada
Source: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation