In 2017, the federal Liberal government launched a $70-billion national housing strategy.
Among its many goals was to eradicate homelessness by the end of this decade and to reduce the number of Canadian households in a state of “core housing need” (defined as households paying more than 30 per cent of their pre-tax income on shelter) by 530,000.
So how has the government done in meeting its goals? How many purpose-built rental units have been erected and at what cost to taxpayers? How many people have been able to take advantage of these new homes and at what rate of rent? What is the demographic makeup of those lucky enough to score one of these “affordable” units?
The answer? Who knows.
Recently, the country’s first federal housing advocate came out and declared that our national housing strategy is “failing.” Marie-Josée Houle said tens of millions of dollars have been spent on housing but the money is not going where it’s needed. Ms. Houle is primarily concerned with the number of homeless people in the country, which continues to grow each year. If the housing plan was working, she deduced, then that wouldn’t be the case.
At the same time, she said the amount of data available from the government on its housing strategy makes it impossible to ascertain who, and how many, are being helped.
I tried to get some information myself. I e-mailed the communications department at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which is overseeing the housing strategy, to determine what our return has been on the $4.5-billion spent on housing since the federal program was announced five years ago. I wanted to know how many individual units have been built and at what cost. How many were stand-alone homes and how many were purpose-built rental units? What was the average square-foot cost that developers were charging Ottawa to build these places, recognizing it would vary across the country?
I sent off the request. Then I got a note back from CMHC staff asking for more time to get the information. Then they asked for more time. And then more. Finally, I got a statement from the office of the Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion, Ahmed Hussen. It said that since taking office in 2015, the Liberals had invested $36-billion into helping women, children, families, Indigenous people and a long list of others to get access to safe and affordable housing.
“These investments have helped us build and repair almost 500,000 homes, through many of our programs, including those under our government’s National Housing Strategy.”
And that was it. No breakdown whatsoever of how billions have been spent so far.
From the ministry’s statement, taxpayers are supposed to divine how much new housing has actually been built, at what cost and how many people have been able to access it. We don’t know how much of the $70-billion committed to housing under the national housing strategy has truly been spent and what value has been derived from whatever sized investment there has been to this point.
It’s appalling. I mean, you have a program intended to build homes for people. Wouldn’t you think that somewhere there is someone keeping tabs on that spending; that somewhere, someone is chronicling where these homes are being built and who is getting to live in them?
Our national housing advocate, Ms. Houle, doesn’t even have access to that information. How is she supposed to make an informed evaluation of the success or failure of the federal housing strategy if Ottawa can’t even provide her with basic numbers? There is no way she can fulfill her mandate unless this information is forthcoming.
“We need to establish a baseline of information about our housing initiatives that we can monitor and make assessments from but we can’t even get that,” Ms. Houle told me.
Even the Auditor-General of Canada, Karen Hogan, is having trouble getting concrete information on the housing strategy. In her last report, she said the CMHC “did not know who was benefiting from its initiatives. This was because the corporation did not measure the changes in housing outcomes for priority vulnerable groups, including people experiencing homelessness.”
She also found that the rental housing units approved under the national housing strategy were often unaffordable for low-income households.
There are huge problems with the federal government’s national housing strategy. It is neither transparent nor effective. And given the money that seems to be going down a big black hole here, it does nothing to dispel the Liberals’ growing reputation for being irresponsible spendthrifts.