What happened to a National (Social) Housing Strategy?: By Sarah Sheridan
People across Canada are facing hours of sifting through newspaper articles, watching interviews, and following tweets from MPs in hopes of gaining clarity about their federal party platforms and promises about housing. Sometimes op-eds, press conferences, and news releases add to the confusion. For example, in regards to housing, “affordable” and “social” are terms these politicians use to describe housing models. But when I surveyed friends and family about their definitions for both, no two responses were the same.
This year Vancouver City Council drafted a new definition of social housing that could result in the displacement of hundreds of low-income residents. Definitions matter. One person said, “Social housing is housing that people can afford, people with limited incomes.” Another, “There’s a huge middle class, and affordable housing for someone making $40K vs. someone making $80K–that’s a big difference.” One person felt that affordable housing should factor in transit costs while another described it as “a place for people who earn less than the living wage.” One person referred to affordable housing as a “generic” term.
With that, I wanted to check out the promises from the federal parties and see if there were any plans that were specific, clear, and understandable. What was their National Housing Strategy? Did they have one? During my research, I was frustrated at the amount of digging and translating I had to do in order to find a clear view of not only parties’ current strategies, but also their records.
The Green Party’s website states that their National Housing Strategy includes the belief that “Any coherent plan must include concrete steps for a seniors’ housing plan, a First Nations plan, a plan for social housing, and for affordable market housing.” Their budget states that they want to “ramp up to building 20,000 new affordable housing units per year; and renew 8,000 units per year to ensure the existing stock,” which is a start. But this promise is not clear because they leave too many questions unanswered. Twenty-thousand units a year is good, but are they going to be market rental or social housing? Who will be able to afford them? Also, part of their strategy is to “provide rent supplements or shelter assistance for an additional 40,000 low-income households per year, for ten years” and to “subsidize private developers to include a percentage of affordable housing in their housing projects.” These policies depend on the private market, and don’t offer anything to those in need of secure government housing.
In the past, both NDP MP for Vancouver-East, Libby Davies and NDP MP for Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, Marie Claude Morin proposed National Housing Strategy legislation. Neither passed in the House. Nowadays, “The NDP wants affordable housing within reach for all Canadians and will sustain investment in Canada’s affordable housing agreements. An NDP government will also provide incentives for the construction of 10,000 affordable and market rental housing units.” Affordable for whom? What happened to social housing?
The Liberal Party states that “access to affordable quality housing is a first step in reducing poverty, hunger and homelessness, especially among vulnerable populations including low income seniors, new immigrants, Aboriginal peoples and persons with disabilities and illness.” While this sounds appealing, the track record of the Liberal party is not favourable. It was the Liberal party that pulled out from a federal social housing plan in 1993 under Jean Chrétien’s government.
In 1996, the federal budget stated it was now the responsibility of provinces and territories to operate any social housing other than on First Nations reserves. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau fail to mention social housing in their plan. Instead they state, “this plan will provide sustainable and predictable tax measures to support the development of market rental housing and that governments ensure existing affordable housing and homelessness investments are permanent.” In other words, it appears that no new government housing will be built and they will instead depend on the market to control housing costs.
Not surprisingly, the Conservatives aim to support a small number of those in need of social housing through private market housing subsidies and re-financing the mortgages of non-profits. The Conservatives are privatizing and defunding social housing. Not only do they not offer enough any money for badly needed new social housing, under Harper federal government funding to existing social housing is set to be cut by $1billion over the next five years. Harper’s continued rule guarantees that municipalities will continue to see an incredible increase in homeless residents in many cities across Canada.
After sifting through the varying definitions and countless articles analyzing federal party history and current platforms, the discovery is disheartening. It’s a bold idea, prized by many, for the federal government to return to a national housing policy that prioritizes social housing over the private market. Unfortunately, the 2015 federal election gives no such promise to the millions of people in need of housing across Canada.