Janet Mason is a fellow at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. Her new commentary on affordable housing in Ontario is available at www.on360.ca
As spring begins in earnest, it’s essential for Ontario’s policy makers at the provincial and municipal level to develop a clear strategy to avoid the type of homelessness crisis that we witnessed this winter. We cannot govern by emergency. The province requires a long-term, evidence-based solution to expand access to affordable housing and ultimately to solve homelessness.
Extreme cold temperatures in December, 2017 precipitated the past year’s crisis. Emergency shelters across the province – particularly in Toronto – struggled to meet the urgent need. Ad hoc, emergency measures, such as opening the Moss Park Armoury, highlighted the underlying problems of shelter shortages and inadequate affordable housing.
These problems didn’t occur over the past winter. The province’s affordable housing and homelessness challenges span decades and involve different policy choices by successive governments. One example: a substantial cut in provincial spending resulted in almost no new public housing being built between 1996 and 2000, and little deeply affordable housing since that time.
There’s been some progress in recent years – including new housing and homelessness programming and funding. But it’s still inadequate relative to the scale of the problem as the winter crisis tragically demonstrated. A 2016 survey by the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association found that nearly 172,000 Ontario households are on municipal waiting lists for subsidized housing. The typical wait time is four years.
No wonder, then, that we have a homelessness crisis. In Toronto, for example, 7,000 emergency shelter beds are full every night. Most of the province’s shelters are operating at 90-per-cent capacity. The system seems to simply move from crisis to crisis with minimal evidence of strategic or long-term thinking.
What does a long-term, evidence-based solution to Ontario’s affordable housing challenges look like?
Enough evidence is now available on which housing policies actually work. Ontario must put in place a housing strategy that focuses resources on such policies by moving to an outcome-based funding model.
Under this model, Ontario government would issue a call for proposals to its municipal partners and flow new funding based on bids by municipal governments to achieve real measurable outcomes. These outcomes shouldn’t relate simply to numbers of shelter beds built, or even to numbers of new units built, but to measurable improvements in outcomes: fewer people in core-housing need, fewer people on the waiting lists for social housing, and a reduction and ultimate elimination of homelessness.
This will force adoption of evidence-based approaches. Simply building more traditional shelter beds in response to last year’s crisis will institutionalize homelessness in our society. People will be warehoused without access to services or a path out of chronic homelessness. We know this and now we need to act upon it.
As part of this new model, municipalities would be required to commit their own resources of land, accelerated approvals, and policy innovation to achieve these results. The province will bring to this its own investments in capital for new build and repairs, long-term commitments to provide rental assistance to low-income households, and housing supports to assist people out of chronic homelessness and to help vulnerable tenants maintain their housing.
Funds should also no longer be allocated to municipalities based on a predetermined share of need or population. Rather, municipalities should receive funding based on the numbers and outcomes they commit to achieving. This will focus investment on the most effective strategies – including deploying resources to the most affordable forms of housing and providing appropriate services to sustain tenancies.
It will also force municipalities to examine the range of their policies, which are now ineffective in addressing the problem – such as failed strategies to address the decline in affordable rental housing stock through conversions, and overemphasis on old-style homeless – and encourage them to make meaningful policy and funding changes. This type of shift is necessary to move to more effective and evidence-based investments, which actually improve the situation for affordable rental housing in Ontario.
The key point is that the 2017/18 homelessness crisis demonstrated that the status quo isn’t working. Underinvestment and ineffective housing policies have produced poor and, at times, tragic outcomes. Ontario policy makers must enact a new strategy based on outcomes, rather than inputs or arithmetic formulas.
It’s time to act now to pre-empt another crisis. It’s time to fund what works to address housing and homelessness in Ontario.