National housing strategy fails to go deep enough on root of ills
As Canada reviews its current housing crisis, it will be necessary for us to go back to the basics. We need to answer the question of what housing is supposed to achieve and whether as a nation we place priority on it as a home, or as a source of wealth and speculative investment.
The answer to this question lies at the heart of the current housing crisis, yet addressing this question was nowhere to be found in the federal government’s new national housing strategy.
The housing “crisis” is actually a series of issues and takes on multiple forms, depending on who you are.
For many of the poorest Canadians, simply having a roof over their heads is a tremendous challenge as rents are rising and wait times for affordable housing can be more than a decade.
For many in the middle class, particularly younger people, being able live and raise a family in our major cities, where the majority of jobs and economic growth are located, is beyond their means. The very people cities need to function — teachers, nurses, bus drivers, etc. — struggle to find adequate housing near where they work.
The new national housing strategy does little to address the underlying causes of housing affordability, accessibility and homelessness. And while it is noble of the prime minister to declare housing rights as human rights, this declaration will have little impact unless we address the structural issues of why housing is so unaffordable and why some people do not have access to it.
In fact, the key pillars of the recently announced strategy only treat the symptoms of the crisis, rather than its cause. One of its flagship programs is a voucher of $2,500 per year for low-income households. This gives people more money to pay for housing, rather than addressing why that housing is so expensive in the first place. And, if this is given to people renting in the private rental market, the risk is that it will really only act as a subsidy to landlords.
A housing strategy that genuinely tackles the root causes of affordability would address two issues. First, it would disincentivize and penalize speculation in the housing market, as demonstrated by the recent interventions by provincial governments in B.C and Ontario aimed at foreign investors. This helped to dissuade some speculation by foreign investors, but largely ignored the larger issue of real estate speculation more generally and practices that drive up costs and reduce supply.
The second approach would encourage and promote non-market housing as the pathway towards a more equitable and just housing system. This could involve traditional social housing, but to truly have an impact we’re going to need to get creative in terms of the type, tenure and ownership of non-market housing. Examples of this can be seen in co-operative housing, community land trusts and even ownership schemes that link the price of housing to average incomes in an area, rather than the housing market.
Imagine being able to own a condo in Toronto or Vancouver for under $200,000 with the understanding that you won’t be able to sell it for a million, as its price is pegged in relation to average incomes in the area.
There is nothing inevitable about homelessness and the increasingly unaffordable nature of our major cities. There are solutions, but they will take more than words and more than money. Solutions will require rethinking what housing means to us and what its place is in society.
When we consider that we live in an era where people sleep on the streets beside investment properties that sit vacant, it should be clear that a progressive housing strategy will have to address the question of whether houses are for people or for profit.
Because in a fair and just society, they can’t be both.
Brian Doucet is an associate professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo.