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Canada Trudeau pressed by advocates to beef up proposed ‘right to housing’ in budget bill

Justin Trudeau, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, addresses supporters at the 2019 convention of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) in Mississaugua, Ont. on April, 12, 2019.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Housing advocates want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to tweak his government’s omnibus budget bill to give greater teeth to the bodies overseeing a new right to housing.

Characterizing housing as a human right is meant to provide a legal remedy – usually through a tribunal – for anyone wrongfully denied a home for reasons including ethnicity, religion or gender identity.

The right the government is proposing to enshrine into law is tucked inside its 392-page budget implementation bill. The bill includes rules for the Liberals’ 10-year national housing strategy – now valued at more than $55-billion in combined federal, provincial and territorial spending – and two new oversight bodies.

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Housing and homeless groups worry that as the bill is currently worded, the proposed new federal housing advocate – effectively a watchdog for the housing system – and an advisory council wouldn’t be able to be true oversight bodies in the same way the Parliamentary Budget Office keeps tabs on federal spending.

In an open letter to Mr. Trudeau released Tuesday, almost a dozen organizations asked for amendments to give the proposed advocate and advisory council greater powers to investigate and hold hearings on systemic issues in the housing system.

They also want make it impossible for ministers to ignore findings of the advocate or council by requiring future governments to respond to any recommendations.

Third, they ask Mr. Trudeau to add a section to ensure individual housing strategies are set into law for Inuit, Metis, First Nations, and urban and rural Indigenous peoples.

The advocates say the changes won’t cost any money but rather “clarify what is currently unclear.”

“What we’re trying to do is help the government deliver what it promised,” said Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, and one of the signatories.

“These are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor amendments to the National Housing Strategy Act that actually gives Canada an opportunity to not only meet international human rights standards, but ... Canada might even be in a position to show some others how it could be done.”

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Housing groups were uneasy when they first heard the changes would be in the budget bill rather than stand alone legislation, because of fears it would be harder to amend. However, with just seven weeks left for Parliament to debate and pass legislation, a time crunch meant passing a separate bill would have been difficult.

The Liberals privately appear open to introducing friendly amendments, and New Democrats have voiced support as well.

The budget bill also contains the Liberals’ proposed anti-poverty law, which combined with the housing strategy seeks to cut poverty rates by 50 per cent from 2015 levels and ease a housing crunch for 530,000 households.

An analysis of 2016 census data published Monday by Statistics Canada showed almost 85 per cent of regular shelter users enumerated in the population counts had a median after-tax income below a poverty line of $22,133.

Almost one-quarter of the 22,190 regular users were counted at shelters for abused women and their children. Overall, shelter users were more likely to be male and single.

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