There has been a nearly never-ending housing crisis for people with low incomes for more than 100 years in Canada. This is worth noting as governments at all levels scramble to do something – and to be seen doing it – to increase housing supply and make it affordable.

Political attention to the housing crisis has historically been limited but the needs of people with low and fixed incomes are in danger of being overlooked at this time because the concerns of the middle class have become the primary concern for political leaders.

To understand the full extent of the crisis today, think of it as two related but somewhat distinct crises. This is essential to the development of equitable and sustainable solutions.

There are actually two parts of the housing system, experts in housing policy note. The primary part includes homeowners and renters in the higher end of the rental market. The secondary part includes renters in the lower end of the rental market, in substandard housing or in some form of government-assisted housing.

Historically, the housing crisis has mostly affected the secondary housing system. Today, a deep double crisis is roiling both the primary and secondary parts. This has happened before, though arguably the situation today is more acute.

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In past dual crises, solutions have often focused on the primary system, with help going to first-time homebuyers or relief provided to existing owners. These interventions are important, but they do not fully respond to needs and inadequacies in the secondary system.

Efforts to increase supply are important. But different interventions are required for the development of housing that is affordable to someone receiving social assistance, for example, and housing for people with specialized needs. Frankly, a significant financial contribution from governments is also required.

To address this devastating double crisis, governments need to do a lot and they need to do it fast. The lack of housing affordability across nearly the entire spectrum is a complex – some would say “wicked” – problem and no single level of government or sector of society can solve it on its own. Governments and sectors must work together.

This is a curse, but it could also be a blessing.

Who is responsible for housing, anyway?

To begin with, the bad news: Canada is a federation. Powers are constitutionally divided between federal and provincial governments. Municipalities are granted their powers by the provinces. The responsibility for housing is not constitutionally assigned.

Even still, all three levels of government have important and varied housing responsibilities. It’s complicated.

The federal government controls direct mortgage financing, fiscal stimulus and monetary policy – all of which are especially important in the primary system.

Provinces control social policies that are both directly and indirectly related to housing such as health care and social assistance. They are often said to have the closest thing to jurisdiction over housing through broadly interpreted property and civil rights powers.

In the 1990s, the federal government transferred responsibility for social housing to the provinces, making them especially powerful in the secondary system. (Ontario passed this responsibility to municipalities – the only province to do so.)

Municipalities have a vital, if historically underappreciated, role in both parts of the housing system through zoning and land-use planning powers, which allow them to decide how much can be built and where.

Indigenous-led organizations are essential in the development and management of safe and affordable housing, though they have historically been underfunded and therefore limited in their ability to do so.

The private sector gets much of the actual building done, while non-profit societies have tremendous expertise in community needs and managing different types of housing, including for groups with specialized needs.

Responsibility for tackling the dual housing crisis therefore lies with many governments and sectors. Further, federal and provincial governments have more resources than municipalities and certainly community groups, but it is often the latter with the localized and specialized expertise to know what to build, where and how to manage it.

So that’s the “bad” news.

The good news is very similar to the bad: no level of government or sector of society has the resources and expertise to single-handedly create an inclusive, affordable, sustainable housing system on their own.

The virtues of a potluck

Think of complex policymaking as a dinner party. One household can easily host a meal for a small group with a simple menu. But for a larger group with varying food sensitivities and preferences, a potluck works better. Everyone looks in their cupboards and drawers, then contributes what they can.

A good potluck needs co-ordination. Nobody wants a potluck with nothing but salads. It’s funny but terrible. A winning potluck needs a variety of dishes from various kitchens with some gluten-free and vegetarian options. With co-ordination and freedom to encourage creative contributions, a potluck can be inclusive, enjoyable and welcoming.

So it is with an inclusive, sustainable, affordable housing system. All levels of government and sectors of society need to open their cupboards and toolboxes, and contribute what they can in co-ordination with others.

Housing-policy potlucking

As with potlucks, some contributors will seem to bring more to the table than others in their efforts to solve the housing crisis.

Indeed, some should. The federal government can’t show up with the policy equivalent of a bowl of olives, which is what it has done for decades. But it also can’t run the whole thing.

Municipalities can do their part by offering up municipal land worth millions, and they are the ones that have to accept the political consequences of controversial zoning changes. Their contributions are equally valuable and necessary.

But federal and provincial governments are in a financial position to contribute the lion’s share of funding to make the system inclusive and vibrant and affordable.

As the best-resourced partner, one of the most important things the federal government can do is move money around: to provinces; to Indigenous-led organizations such as the National Indigenous Collaborative Housing Inc.; to non-profits; and to municipalities where possible.

Attaching conditions to the funding is controversial, especially in provinces that have historically resisted federal encroachments. Yet, offering funding under certain circumstances, such as building housing around transit corridors or requiring increased density, can help municipalities out of the politically charged situation of making those decisions on their own.

Senior governments should set up their partners for success. They can share some of the short-term political pain and offer incentives up front, including funding transfers and subsidies, instead of as a reward once developments are underway or completed.

Housing has been recognized as a right in Canada, yet accessing an adequate and affordable home is increasingly unattainable. In a country that is as rich, and as cold, as Canada, this is an injustice that has gone on for far too long.

In light of the challenges across the housing spectrum, all levels of government and society need to work hard, work smart, work fast and work together.

This article is part of a series called How does Canada fix the housing crisis?

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