The bad news is that calling what the Liberal government released on Wednesday a National Housing Strategy exaggerates the scope of the plan. It was an outline of the rudiments of a federal low-income housing strategy, with roughly drawn directions for policy. The good news is that they were the right directions.
One is that Ottawa is taking on a larger role in expanding the supply of low-income housing, by subsidizing the building or renovation of more units, with an emphasis on mixed-use, mixed-income housing. Another is a new housing "portable" benefit that is supposed to help families afford housing where they can get it, and which doesn't have to be used in designated community housing.
Both are needed. That should be no secret. The rise of housing costs in some places, notably Toronto and Vancouver, makes the pressures felt by lower-income families seem obvious.
Still, Wednesday's announcement doesn't quite meet the billing of a National Housing Strategy. To fulfill that grand promise, you'd have to expect an examination of the broad range of housing.
It might, for example, have considered policies to encourage the expansion of the stock of rental units in cities such as Vancouver. Penny Gurstein, a professor in the University of British Columbia's school of community and regional planning, argues that a housing strategy has to find some equity for renters in a city that is mostly renters. City businesses find it hard to find service workers because they can't afford to live there, she argued, so housing policies have to allow for mixed-income cities. A national strategy might have examined possible ways to help those who fear they won't ever afford to buy a house, a topic that the document released on Wednesday didn't address substantively. It didn't address the wide range of affordability issues that worry Canadians. The Liberals' political opponents will find opportunities in what they left out.
But this strategy offered a few good directions. The federal government's touted "return" to subsidizing housing is important. Ottawa never completely left the business, but spending dwindled. Contrary to what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, that cannot be pinned solely on Stephen Harper's decade – the decline has been pretty steady since Brian Mulroney was in power.
Back in the 1980s, Wilfrid Laurier University professor Geoffrey Nelson noted, there were 25,000 new low-income units being built each year. Now, the federal government is saying it will quadruple the number of new units subsidized by Ottawa, to roughly 10,000 a year from roughly 2,500.
It's less than many social-housing advocates say is necessary, but substantially more than before. It's hard to imagine a government with persistent deficits committing much more. (The government called it a 10-year, $40-billion strategy, but that includes loans and provincial matching funds, and no clear breakdown added up to that sum. One Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. official provided figures that indicate the whole strategy will employ $16-billion in new federal money over 10 years.)
Some federal money, $2-billion, will be spent on that new housing benefit, which can be used to pay rent anywhere rather than being restricted to social-housing units. It's a good idea that doesn't go far enough.
One problem is that it depends on financially pressed provinces matching the funds to make a total spend of $4-billion. And it won't start till 2020. It will take time to work out the details with provinces, but Ottawa is almost certainly relieved there is an excuse to avoid raising its short-term deficit higher.
A portable benefit is a good idea. It can alleviate waiting lists for community housing. It encourages lower-income families to rent in mixed-income buildings, which might help break down the income stratification that occurs in cities with high housing costs. It helps people move for work or education.
The problem is that the proposal is stretched. The federal government, presumably hoping to claim it would help a large number of people, decided the average benefit will be $2,500 a year. That's a little more than $200 a month. "That won't go very far," Prof. Nelson said. The strategy would probably go farther with more of its funding devoted to that benefit.
But the strategy shouldn't be dismissed for being incomplete and even flawed. New Democrats will argue it doesn't do enough. Conservatives will probably complain it doesn't help home buyers. But it does point Ottawa's low-income housing policy in some of the right directions.