Prioritizing people over profit is the way forward on the housing crisis

Opinion piece as published in the Toronto Star on September 7, 2023.

Written by Marie-Josée Houle, Canada’s Federal Housing Advocate.

The national debate on housing that unfolded this summer has been fierce – with good reason: Canada’s housing crisis has reached catastrophic proportions, and it is only getting worse.

With a new cabinet in place, the federal government is renewing its focus on tackling the housing crisis – and receiving lots of advice on how to do it.

One thing is certain: we cannot count on the for-profit housing industry to fix the problem.

It is up to the federal government to take the lead on creating housing that prioritizes people's human right to housing over profit. Investing in non-market housing is the way out of the housing crisis.

We are in this mess, in part, because Canada ended its social housing program in the 1990s. The thinking was that if government got out of the way, the private market would step in to build more homes – the more homes they built, the cheaper they would be.

This has not worked.

A recent report from Montreal found not a single private developer has complied with a city bylaw aimed at adding affordable or social housing into new construction. They all opted to pay the fine instead.

Some argue governments need to make it more enticing for developers, corporate owners, and large landlords to build new housing.

However, using public funds to create incentives for the private sector with no strings attached is not the answer. Preferential interest rates, tax breaks, and waived fees have only contributed to profits at the expense of most Canadians.

This doesn’t mean the private market has no place in building housing in Canada. But any investment of public money must result in public good.

Public money should support non-market housing – cooperative, non-profit and public housing –that is permanently affordable and accessible.

A recent Scotiabank report and the National Housing Accord suggest expanding non-market supply by 655,000 units – doubling the stock from 3.5% to 7% of all total units.

It is a good start, but we need to set our sights higher.

If we want to address the existing crisis, 4.2 million units of housing need to be non-market housing. This would represent 20% of all housing units in Canada. That proportion will need to be sustained over the long term with continued government investments.

The reasoning is simple. Analysis of housing need in Canada, led by housing expert Carolyn Whitzman, shows 20% of households have incomes so low, the level of affordability they need is less than $1,050 per month.

The ultimate goal is a sustainable housing system. Where non-profit housing communities are an attractive choice because they offer something for everyone.

The key ingredient to get there is a human rights approach that puts people first over profit. We must prioritize housing that is safe, healthy and affordable for everyone, from students, to newcomers, to people with low incomes. We must prioritize housing for people with disabilities, seniors and families. And it must remain affordable in perpetuity, so we don’t find ourselves here again in 20 years.

This is a complex problem that requires many solutions. All levels of government have a role to play in funding non-market housing. And the federal government has a responsibility to lead the way.

To start, the National Housing Strategy’s $82-billion dollar suite of programs should change course to prioritize the construction of non-market housing. The federal government can create a fund for non-market and Indigenous housing providers to buy, repair and operate existing buildings. And lastly, the federal government must attach conditions to federal infrastructure funding that mandate the creation of non-market housing in new housing projects.

Canada has recognized that housing is a human right.

The government has an obligation to prioritize human rights over private interests, so that our housing system works for everyone.

The way forward is people over profit.

The way forward is respecting the human right to housing.

The way forward is non-market supply.

I am here to work alongside Minister Fraser to make this a reality.

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