In spite of a rocky launch, the National Housing Strategy could, finally, signal a new era of affordable housing production in Canada.

When it comes to housing strategies, the Liberal Party giveth, taketh away and giveth again. In 1973, then Liberal minister of urban affairs Ron Basford launched major reforms to the National Housing Act, saying, “Good housing at reasonable cost is a social right of every citizen of this country.” This led to a golden age of social housing construction. More than 19,000 units were built annually between 1974 and 1985, and the federal government spent over $2 billion per year in the sector. Then came the Paul Martin Liberal years of cutbacks and austerity. In 1993 the federal social housing program, which had operated for almost 50 years, was terminated.

When he announced the National Housing Strategy (NHS) this fall, Justin Trudeau was echoing Basford’s words: “Housing rights are human rights, and everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home.” In what the government bravely calls “a human-rights-based approach to housing,” the multi-year, $40-billion promise raises huge expectations that may be difficult to meet.

For starters, the fight to make decent housing a fundamental right, even entrenched in law or the Charter, is far from won. It has been the subject of failed legislation and court cases. This is despite the fact that the right is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. An innovative legal challenge begun in 2010, Tanudjaja v. Attorney General of Canada and Attorney General of Ontario, asserts that “in taking the active decisions to implement these laws and policies that produce and perpetuate homelessness and inadequate housing, the federal and provincial governments have violated the constitutional rights of the most marginalized members of our communities.” This challenge was dismissed, and it is far from clear, despite the government’s claims, that such a right will be legislated.

So we are left with a promise that the government will fix the homelessness and affordable housing crisis with over $40 billion over 11 years and a process that commits future governments to see it through. And a crisis it is. Recent data suggest there are 1.6 million households in “core housing need” — in other words, that spend more than one-third of their before-tax income on housing that is substandard or doesn’t meet their needs. The shelter crisis for homeless people in Toronto during a January cold snap was front-page news.

The reaction to the NHS in the media was lukewarm, but few media organizations actually analyzed what the plan really entailed. However, big-city mayors were ecstatic. The 20-year lobbying campaign of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities had seemingly paid off. On release day, FCM President Jenny Gerbasi was quick to highlight what the mayors liked: “The federal government took our advice to focus on the fundamentals. Replacing expiring social housing rent subsidies is a breakthrough for thousands of families who fear losing their homes as long-term operating agreements wind down. Investing to repair and renew that social housing will keep more people in their homes and help secure tomorrow’s supply. And getting back to investing in affordable housing construction is the breakthrough we needed to start tackling the supply crunch.”

The FCM and the provinces had been rightly apprehensive that existing federal-provincial agreements were winding down, reducing the amount of money that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) delivers to providers. Then there is the huge backlog of repairs to existing units. The Canada Community Housing Initiative, part of the NHS, will focus on preserving existing social housing. This will entail $4.3 billion of federal funding over a decade and require cost-matching from provinces and territories. Interestingly, this is precisely the amount of federal funding for existing social housing units that is set to expire over the next decade. How far this will go in meeting huge gaps in money needed for repairs — such as the $1.6-billion gap in Toronto alone — is anybody’s guess.

A problem in analyzing the NHS is determining how much new money in fact will be available. In its thorough analysis of the strategy, the Centre for Urban Research and Education wrote, “Within the total of some $42 billion of planned spending over the next 11 years, only $15.0 billion is new money (includes the [2016] budget $11.2 and the quantification of the baseline savings). The rest is either loan funding (to finance renovation and new development), or existing funds. [Provincial and territorial] cost sharing will potentially add $7.4 billion.”

One aspect of the NHS has received almost unanimous accolades. The new $4-billion Canada Housing Benefit is to be paid directly to families and individuals in housing need, including those in social housing who may have to move and lose their units, those on social housing wait-lists (97,000 households in Toronto) and those housed in the private market but struggling to make ends meet. The benefit will deliver an average of $2,500 a year to each recipient household.

The other long-awaited news is that CMHC is back in the affordable housing business in a big way. Over a 10-year period, $4.7 billion in financial contributions and $11.2 billion in low-interest loans will be available to developers that meet certain affordability and environmental criteria.

Adam Vaughan, a former Toronto city councillor and Parliamentary Secretary to Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, was a key architect of the NHS. He put the revived role for the CMHC in subsidizing private and not-for-profit affordable housing in context for me this February in an interview: “The best investments emerge organically and are community driven,” he said. “You present a plan and the CMHC is ready to be flexible with loans, subsidies, mortgages and so on. We are reprofiling the CMHC.”

A sure sign that the government is serious about reviving the CMHC is the appointment of Derek Ballantyne as chair of the board, which now boasts two additional senior executives from the world of cooperative financial institutions. Ballantyne was formerly head of Canada’s largest social housing agency, Toronto Community Housing (TCH). Under him plans were initiated to revitalize TCH’s rundown social housing by having developers combine new market-rent condos with social housing, a strategy embraced in the NHS. This innovative reformatting of public lands, for example in Toronto’s Regent Park, aims to produce vastly improved subsidized housing at low cost.

Ballantyne takes over the CMHC chair in April 2018. He is optimistic. “The NHS is a huge opportunity — for innovation in solving the critical housing issues we face, for addressing the needs of many Canadians for more affordable housing that meets their needs and to ensure that CMHC assumes its leadership role in building an effective housing system for all Canadians — with both market and nonmarket partners. The board is very much up for this challenge,” he told me in February.

It does look as if the stars may be aligned for a new era of affordable housing production. But, as with many of the Trudeau government’s initiatives, the NHS suffers from poor launch communications, extended time horizons for implementation and reliance on provincial partnerships. Nevertheless, its thrust is well thought out, and, with allies in the right places, over time it should gain momentum.

It has been a long time coming.

Illustration: Shutterstock, by Picsfive

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