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opinion

David Hulchanski is a professor of housing and community development in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto.

Canada now has a National Housing Strategy. Or at least a document with that name. It was even released by the Prime Minister himself, which is very rare for a housing report. A national housing strategy was promised in the federal election campaign and, well, here it is. Or is it?

"Our primary focus," the Housing Minister notes, "will be on meeting the needs of vulnerable populations." A housing strategy must focus on those most in need. But to give a plan the grand title of a housing strategy for the country implies that it deals with the housing system as a whole. Instead, the document is just another policy paper outlining potential subsidies to help a few, very few, of those in housing need.

The covering letter belies the paper's narrow focus. It "is a key element of our Government's plan to help strengthen the middle class," the minister writes. Yet the report mentions the middle class only twice.

The document provides no assessment of Canada's housing system, what works well, what does not. It asserts that 1.7 million people are in housing need (inadequate and/or unaffordable housing) and that another 25,000 are homeless. Many Canadians feel a growing sense of housing insecurity. A national housing strategy would explain why this is the case and identify appropriate remedial actions.

Instead, there is a random and confusing set of spending initiatives, all involving billions of dollars, most starting after the next election.

The past budget assigned $11-billion for housing, most of it allocated to the next decade. If $1-billion per year out of a federal budget of more than $300-billion seemed insignificant for a wealthy country, how about a bigger number? How about $40-billion over 10 years? Might this persuade voters that their government is entering into "a new era for housing," as the document boldly claims?

The extra $30-billion, however, dissolves under scrutiny. About $11-billion is in loans, not new spending for those most in need. Several other billions depend on intergovernmental joint funding – the surest way to delay, if not kill, any proposal. The proposed housing benefit (cash to help people pay the rent), requires joint funding. Moreover, it would not begin until 2020, and assumes an average subsidy of $200 a month, far from adequate, even in less-expensive housing markets.

A national housing strategy would not simply subsidize some of the more obvious failings of our housing system, while keeping everything else the same. But this is all the "strategy" does. The word affordable is mentioned about 70 times, with no definition of affordable housing. The word community appears nearly 100 times. These words apparently poll well. Housing system, housing market and market failure are not mentioned at all. Speculation appears twice in the 40 pages.

The government's headline claim that this is "Canada's first ever national housing strategy" fails on two counts. Not only is it not a housing strategy, but even if it were, it would not be the first.

National housing strategies assess the current provision of housing and the connections between owning, renting and specific social needs, as well as other related policy areas (e.g., taxation).

In 1944, the committee on reconstruction's extensive assessment of housing (the Curtis report) led to the 1944 National Housing Act, the establishment of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (1946), and a set of ownership, private rental and public-housing subsidies.

The Pierre Trudeau government appointed a housing task force that in 1969 issued a highly critical report on the state of the country's housing. It then established the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs and very significantly changed housing policy with the 1973 National Housing Act.

The Mulroney government immediately established a task force on program review, which issued a housing policy discussion paper and a report assessing existing housing programs. In December, 1985, it announced its housing policies, A National Direction for Housing Solutions.

Those were far from perfect, but were systematic attempts at improving our housing system.

Canadians still need a national housing strategy from the second Trudeau government – backed by evidence-based studies – to understand why, in 2017, so many households cannot afford appropriate housing and so many people remain unhoused.

A real national housing strategy would aim for an inclusive housing system, much like our health-care system. It would address (1) how to stimulate adequate housing production, (2) how to produce a mix of housing choice (tenure, location, size, quality) and (3) how to assist those who cannot afford adequate housing. It would recognize and address the remaining systemic racism in our housing system. It would not simply sprinkle a few subsidies here and there.

Instead of a strategy that sets high-level goals, identifies activities to achieve those goals and allocates the necessary resources, we have a random list of subsidies with no clear rationale.

There is no reason to expect that the forces producing our current national housing insecurity won't continue.

The Prime Minister is promising $40-billion over the next decade to help Canadians afford housing. Justin Trudeau says the government is looking at a "realistic horizon," with much of the money being spent after the 2019 election.

The Canadian Press

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