The federal government released their long awaited National Housing Strategy (NHS) yesterday. Here’s my take on the strategy and what it means for ending homelessness in Canada.
First – it is unequivocally good news
There’s no two ways about it, the National Housing Strategy is very good news. Remembering thatmodern mass homelessness in Canada is the product of federal withdrawal from housing investment and Canada wide cuts in welfare starting in the mid-1980’s, the federal government’s return to housing leadership is a very big deal.
The NHS shows a government with ambition, working through serious complexity with many partners, dealing with very expensive legacy issues yet working hard to make significant gains in 10 years on the problems that have grown over 30. All things considered, they’ve done a pretty good job.
Will the National Housing Strategy end homelessness in Canada? No. But it gives us a very solid foundation to build on.
It’s a work in progress
There’s a lot of work left to do. Most of the measures in the NHS have to be negotiated in some form with the provinces and other stakeholders. That process is ongoing. From a homelessness perspective, if we want the National Housing Strategy to make a positive impact on ending homelessness we are going to have to stay assertively engaged in the policy process and work to influence implementation – especially on the Canada Housing Benefit and the Right to Housing – and work to ensure at least some of the new housing built will support ending homelessness.
If you’re in a hole, stop digging
In the National Housing Strategy the government did what they had to do to keep the housing crisis from getting worse for hundreds of thousands of Canadians and they are being pretty thoughtful in how they go about it. The most significant investments in the NHS are focused on repairing up to 300,000 old social housing units and addressing the Expiry of Operating agreements that threatened the affordable housing of 385,000 households.
100,000 new units
The NHS promises up to 100,000 new housing units over the course of the plan. On the face of it this is great news but it’s unclear if or how people experiencing homelessness will benefit. The new housing will largely be delivered through the provinces or the National Housing Co-Investment Fund. There are many competing priorities for this funding (e.g. ‘local priorities’, VAW shelters, seniors housing, housing for people with developmental disabilities) meaning a little bit of money will likely get spread thinly over more than a decade. Further, the CMHC definition of ‘affordability’ remains at ‘80% of median market rents’ which is unaffordable for most people experiencing homelessness.
It will be critically important for local leaders to ensure supportive and deep subsidy affordable housing is a local priority and projects are put forward to the National Housing Co-Investment Fund and provincial leaders.
Cutting ‘chronic homelessness’ in half
Reading the fine print, the NHS actually says a 50% reduction in estimated number of chronically homeless shelter users. To put it politely, this goal underestimates chronic homelessness in Canada and sets the bar very low. In fairness to the government, the goal is set with the best data they have and I believe they hope to under-promise and over-deliver.
We know more is possible. Through the 20,000 Homes Campaign, the CAEH is working with a small and determined group of cities willing to do what it takes to end chronic homelessness. The 20,000 Homes Campaign is a national change movement focused on ending chronic homelessness in 20 communities and housing 20,000 of Canada’s most vulnerable homeless people by July 1, 2020.
I believe our campaign communities will inspire the government to greater ambition on ending homelessness by doing it. We will also show them how, by being a large scale proving ground for real time data (By Name Lists), Housing First, the application of quality improvement science, coordinated access and homeless system coordination.
The new Homelessness Partnering Strategy
The government referred to a new homelessness program which will replace the Homelessness Partnering Strategy. Minister Duclos has recruited an Advisory Committee on Homelessness to provide recommendations for the design of this new program. Details of the new program are expected early in the New Year. The re-designed HPS is going to be a critical vehicle for ending homelessness in Canada. The government appears to see this program as the way they will achieve a 50% reduction in chronic homelessness.
The Right to Housing
In the NHS announcement, the government acknowledged the Right to Housing and promised ‘progressive realization’ of that right for Canadians. In the NHS document, they took some initial steps toward a Right to Housing promising:
- legislation to require the federal government to maintain a National Housing Strategy and report to Parliament on housing targets and outcomes;
- a federal housing advocate;
- a National Housing Council (including people with lived experience); and,
- a Community- Based Tenant Initiative to provide funding to local organizations which assist people in housing need, so that they are better represented and able to participate in housing policy and housing project decision-making.
Promising ‘progressive realization’ of the Right to Housing means the government is committed to working on it and incrementally, eventually achieving it. While we will fall far short of ensuring all Canadians have their right to housing realized, the government has set the bar and expectation against which they can be held accountable. The government has made an important beginning and put in place accountability measures we can use to press for more action.
Indigenous Housing Strategy
An under-reported but critically important aspect of the National Housing Strategy document is a section on negotiations currently underway with First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders toward specific Indigenous housing strategies. These strategies will begin to deal with some of the critical housing challenges facing Indigenous Peoples in Canada and are expected to come with additional funding.
Canada Housing Benefit
Finally, the Canada Housing Benefit is the biggest innovation and most important aspects of the National Housing Strategy for ending homelessness. The Canada Housing Benefit is a $4 billion federal/provincial/territorial portable housing benefit program designed to provide direct financial support to individuals facing housing affordability challenges. This housing benefit has the potential to be a very powerful tool for preventing and ending homelessness.
It is essential that this benefit be prioritized to people experiencing homelessness and Canadians in extreme core housing need. The CHB isn’t expected to be in place until 2021 and in that time CAEH will be working with a coalition of allies to fight for a CHB that will be effective in preventing and ending homelessness.
The National Housing Strategy is a sweeping, complex and ambitious initiative. It returns the federal government to an important leadership role on housing and builds a solid foundation for ending homelessness. There are still many important details to be worked out but the investment of over $40 billion in housing and homelessness is a very big deal.
For over 30 years advocates have been relentless in their calls for this strategy. For the last two years, hundreds of people have worked tirelessly to lobby for and build the strategy. And now we enter a new phase where we have to make it real.
In this new phase, we cannot lose the urgency, desperation and determination that has marked the fight for a National Housing Strategy.
The lack of a home is a matter of life and death for too many Canadians. We must act urgently and do what it takes to make sure every Canadian has a safe, decent, affordable and appropriate home.