Housing strategy a national priority

TheStar.com – comment/editorial – Housing strategy a national priority
June 09, 2008

The latest Statistics Canada report on housing contains good as well as some frightening news for Canadians. The good news: 68.4 per cent of households now own their own homes. The bad news: Never before have they been in so much debt.

Canadians owe almost $850 billion on their homes, double what they did a decade ago, and if the trend continues, the value of outstanding mortgages will surpass $1 trillion by the end of next year.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says he is keeping a close eye on rising mortgage costs and falling down payments, given the subprime disaster in the United States where hundreds of thousands of homeowners suddenly found themselves in well over their heads.

But while the news was mixed for homeowners, it was mostly bad for renters who typically are the lowest income Canadians, earning in most parts of Canada half or less of what homeowners earn.

Although affordability is a growing concern among homeowners – roughly one in four makes mortgage payments in excess of the 30 per cent of income threshold that marks the upper limit for affordable housing in this country – it is a much bigger problem for renters. More than four in 10 renters spend 30 per cent or more of their income on rent.

The growing shelter squeeze for both owners and renters illustrates why market forces alone will never respond to the needs of the poorest. That is why Canada needs a national housing strategy.

Before Ottawa and the provinces massively cut their support for housing in the 1990s, governments recognized the need for intervention and stepped in with strategic affordable housing investments, says Michael Shapcott, director of community engagement for the Wellesley Institute. Now the patchwork of funding and programs that has emerged in recent years is “badly fraying.”

Many of the owners and renters struggling the most live in Ontario where the proportion of households spending too much of their income on housing is well above the national average because shelter costs are the highest of any province. In the GTA, almost half of all renters spend more than a third of their income on rent, leaving 70,000 families stuck on waiting lists for affordable housing for years.

Canada is the only major country in the world without a national housing strategy. And while Ontario has promised to develop a provincial strategy, that has yet to emerge. Unless action is taken at both levels, increasing numbers of Canadians will be denied their basic right to decent, affordable housing that leaves them enough money to pay for all the other necessities of life.

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