Pedro Barata of United Way Toronto & York Region chairs the National Housing Collaborative and Tim Richter is president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
A frustratingly familiar challenge is playing out for Canadian families across the country. Overheated markets are pricing home ownership out of reach for too many. Limited vacancy rates are squeezing rental supply. And people who are struggling to find shelter say it's just too expensive. A common thread throughout all of these scenarios is cost. Affordability determines access. And one solution within our grasp is a national portable housing benefit.
More than 1.5 million Canadian households are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent – CMHC's standard for affordability. Over half of these households are in extreme core-housing need (living in poverty and spending more than 50 per cent of income on housing). Worse still, every night more than 35,000 Canadians will be homeless as part of the more than 235,000 Canadians who experience homelessness at some point every year. These are people who are sleeping in shelters, on the street, couch surfing, or waiting unnecessarily in hospital or other temporary accommodation.
Beyond the human toll, poverty and homelessness are a financial burden on all Canadians. A recent report funded by United Way Toronto & York Region found that in Toronto alone, poverty costs $5-billion annually. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, homelessness costs Canadians over $7-billion a year.
The good news is that poverty and homelessness are problems that can be solved. The federal government's commitment to a National Housing Strategy and the upcoming budget is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a significant new investment in affordable housing.
Over the past year, affordable housing advocates, national associations, researchers, foundations, municipalities, home builders and landlords have come together as a United Way-led National Housing Collaborative (NHC) to propose innovative, detailed and tangible steps the government can take.
With the budget just days away, there is a historic opportunity for the government to make immediate progress on one of the NHC's key proposals: a commitment to a portable housing benefit. This benefit is a subsidy paid directly to tenants who cannot afford rent.
Here are five reasons why the portable housing benefit is a smart idea:
1. It is the most efficient way to help households in need and address homelessness. We need more supply and it is essential that investment in new units and repairs of existing affordable and social-housing stock are priorities in the budget. But new units will take years to build and Canada's housing crisis is far too big to be fixed by construction alone. For renters in crisis, a portable subsidy makes housing affordable right away and gives them stability and choice.
2. It will reduce homelessness. The vast majority of people who experience homelessness in Canada are homeless only because they cannot afford rent. A portable housing benefit would prevent homelessness for thousands of Canadians and take thousands more quickly off the street and out of shelters and house them in stable, long-term tenancies.
3. It will reduce poverty. When people are able to afford their rent, they are most likely to succeed in securing better nutrition, education, child care and other things that contribute to health, quality of life and economic success.
4. Its portability means it is tied to an individual, rather than a housing unit, giving people choice so they can move to a different neighbourhood, town or city, based on their career or personal needs. It is also essential in mitigating against rent inflation.
5. It is already working. Five provinces offer a housing benefit, and Ontario is piloting a new program. A federal housing benefit would boost existing programs and provide much-needed support to all Canadians.
This government has already shown leadership on the Canada child benefit – which is helping to lift children out of poverty and giving a new generation of Canadians a more promising start. The 2017 budget offers the next opportunity to make a transformational change in the lives of Canadians. Urgent access to stable, affordable housing will allow families to focus their energies on making their lives, and all of Canada, more prosperous, inclusive and healthier.