Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s new housing policy offers us a lot of things, but what it fails to mention might hurt vulnerable Canadians the most.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory recently announced a $1.3 billion federal investment in the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the city’s largest affordable housing provider. According to the federal government, the $1.3 billion will go toward renovating some 58,000 housing units across 1,500 buildings. It is the largest federal transfer of housing funds to a municipality in the country’s history.
The investment follows on the heels of Trudeau’s announcement of the federal government’s first-ever National Housing Strategy in 2017. Trudeau pledged to spend $40 billion to address the problems of inadequate housing and chronic homelessness in Canada over a 10-year period.
For his part, Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently pledged $1 billion to repair Ontario’s affordable housing stock and streamline the application process as part of the provincial government’s Community Housing Renewal Strategy. Exactly how much Toronto Community Housing will receive is unclear.
Ontario’s recent budget is silent on the issue as well. It doesn’t mention Toronto Community Housing once. Instead, the budget seems focused on boosting the overall housing supply while cutting access to social programs like affordable housing, income support and homelessness prevention by $550 million per year. Funding for the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Housing and Affairs has been cut by 25 per cent overall.
When Trudeau first announced the National Housing Strategy, he famously declared that “housing rights are human rights.” The federal government’s investment in Toronto Community Housing is an important step toward fulfilling this promise. Now it’s the province’s turn to step up as well.
More than just a landlord
Affordable housing providers in Canada are facing an identity crisis.
Some critics have argued that Toronto Community Housing should behave like any other landlord. They argue its main job should be to collect rents, enforce leases and promptly evict tenants who fail to comply with the rules, regardless of their personal circumstances.
Toronto Community Housing has faced accusations of wasteful spending in the past. Residents and taxpayers should demand a crackdown, the critics say. A Toronto Sun columnist suggested that it should behave like a private landlord: “Clearly, private landlords are in business to make money. (Toronto Community Housing) officials really couldn’t care less.”
Ford would seem to agree. One of the hallmarks of Ontario’s new housing policy is a change to the application rules. Toronto Community Housing would be empowered to turn away prospective tenants who were previously evicted for criminal activity. Apparently Tory has campaigned for the rule change as well.
Toronto Community Housing is home to 110,000 people, including 30,000 youth and children and 20,000 seniors. The vast majority of residents live below the poverty line. Nearly 60 per cent of them are women, and one third of them self-identify as either having a disability or living with mental health challenges. For many people, eviction from Toronto Community Housing would mean they have nowhere else to live. Homelessness, poverty rates, and mental health are closely interrelated in Canada.
Properly understood in this light, Toronto Community Housing is more than just a private landlord. And the federal government’s investment is more than just a commitment to repairing bricks and mortar. Affordable housing is one of the planks of a more fair and just society. Ontario’s new housing policy fails to recognize this.
Affordable housing matters
Since the federal and provincial governments downloaded responsibility for affordable housing to municipalities in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Toronto Community Housing has lacked stable, long-term sources of funding and support from every level of government.
As a result, Toronto Community Housing faces a capital repairs shortfall of $2.6 billion over the next 10 years since it inherited a large stock of buildings without the resources to maintain them. The city’s affordable housing stock is literally crumbling.
The waiting list for a rent-subsidized unit in Toronto Community Housing is currently tens of thousands of families long. Most applicants can expect to wait seven years or more for a bachelor unit and longer than 10 years for a larger unit. The waiting list includes people experiencing homelessness, survivors of intimate partner violence and human trafficking and terminally ill people with fewer than two years to live.
A combination of factors has meant that Toronto Community Housing has failed to provide shelter for many people who need it most. Research shows that racialized women, Indigenous peoples, immigrant populations, and persons with disabilities, among others, are most likely to face housing discrimination in Canada. Homelessness is a barrier to the social advancement of historically marginalized groups in our society, particularly those who fall at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression and can face the greatest challenges in obtaining safe and adequate housing.
Police services are not equipped to contend with the complex issues facing people who experience poverty and homelessness. The criminal justice system is increasingly exclusionary of people with mental health challenges, among others, who comprise a large part of Toronto Community Housing’s population. Shifts in public policy surrounding poverty, homelessness and mental health have resulted in the criminalization of homelessness in Canada.
Faced with this reality, the federal government’s recognition that “housing rights are human rights” is a commitment to addressing the city’s increasingly competitive and inaccessible housing market. It’s a commitment to improving the safety, housing conditions and quality of life for thousands of city residents. It’s a commitment to empowering some of the most vulnerable members of our society by increasing their access to vital social services like job placement assistance and local community-building initiatives. Affordable housing providers can help to provide these services.
The provincial government’s new housing policy, on the other hand, fails to reflect the same values as the federal government’s plan.
Ontario should have allocated more for affordable housing in its budget, not less. To match the federal government’s investment, the province should have earmarked funds for Toronto Community Housing specifically. Mental health supports and other social programs aimed at homelessness prevention should have been made a top priority throughout. And the province should have recognized that housing rights are human rights, not privileges. This means they should extend to everyone. Prospective tenants who were previously evicted for criminal activity should not be denied access to affordable housing in the future.
Building for the future
Affordable housing providers should be funded and supported toward the goal of breaking the cycle of poverty in Canada. The federal government’s investment in Toronto Community Housing is a good start, but more funding and support from every level of government is needed to fulfil Trudeau’s promise that “housing rights are human rights” across the country.
At the same time, affordable housing providers should be held more accountable in meeting their human rights mandate. The National Housing Strategy is not a blank cheque. The promise of the policy requires that we spend residents and taxpayers’ money in socially responsible ways.
Canadians should invest in affordable housing. It’s a commitment to lifting the most vulnerable members of our society from the ground up — and lifting our entire country up in the process.