Provinces must take lead on housing

Waterloo Region Record – op-ed – Provinces must take lead on housing
July 23, 2008. By David Snow, Canada West Foundation

In the last decade, housing conditions have deteriorated for many Canadians, and the relative dearth of affordable housing is raising alarms.

Rental vacancy rates have reached staggering lows in many Canadian cities, spending on shelter has outpaced income growth, and energy costs continue to rise.

In 2005, fully one-quarter of Canadians spent 30 per cent or more of their income on shelter. Low-income renters have felt the affordability squeeze the hardest and many have been forced into homelessness.

In September, the provincial housing ministers are set to meet in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is expected that Monte Solberg, the federal minister responsible for housing, will also attend. With funding for four federal housing initiatives — the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program, the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, the Affordable Housing Initiative, and the Affordable Housing Trust — set to expire in March 2009, there is a growing concern among housing advocates that Canada is on the cusp of a housing crisis.

Looking across the border at the American housing problems, Canadians are getting nervous. Calls for a national housing strategy, ubiquitous since 1998, have never been louder.

The expiry of federal programs should indeed cause concern. Since 2001, the federal government has assumed an important role in the provision of affordable housing, albeit as a funder rather than an administrator.

However, something else should also raise eyebrows: While government spending on housing has risen substantially since 2001, affordable housing and homelessness conditions have actually deteriorated in that time.

This anomaly should not go unnoticed by the provincial housing ministers. After their last meeting in April, the ministers criticized the federal government for a lack of support, but did little in terms of analyzing their own policies. In aiming to improve housing affordability and reduce homelessness, the ministers should keep the following points in mind:

– Shelve the hyperbole of a national housing strategy. There are numerous problems related to affordable housing and homelessness, and each province has a different housing priority. For example, Manitoba needs to focus on restoring dilapidated rental units, Saskatchewan on fostering sufficient rental development in anticipation of population growth, and Alberta on developing supportive housing for its growing homeless population. Even within the West, a “one-size-fits-all” strategy risks ignoring unique provincial concerns.

– Provinces need to take responsibility. Constitutionally, housing is a provincial responsibility. And given diverse housing markets and conditions, that’s a good thing.

While the federal government has traditionally had a strong role in the housing sector, provinces now administer most housing programs, own most of the social housing and spend more than the federal government on housing. As arbiters of housing policy, provinces need to shoulder responsibility and set their own targets.

– Focus on best practices. There are countless strategies that have been used to increase affordability and decrease homelessness in Canada, the United States and many other countries.

These include social housing, rent supplements, shelter allowances, inclusionary zoning, tax incentives for rental development, and supportive housing, to name a few.

The ministers need to determine which programs would be most successful in their respective provinces.

– Set goals with the aim of increasing affordability and decreasing homelessness. The sole goal of most federal/provincial cost-shared housing initiatives has simply been to develop more social housing units, with no targets for actually increasing affordability.

For many provinces, the only current housing target seems to be lobbying the federal government for more money. If provinces want long-term funding from the federal government, they must be ready to set hard targets to reduce homelessness, reduce the incidence of core housing need, and cut wait lists for social housing and rent supplements.

– Don’t make municipalities completely responsible for housing. Ontario’s disastrous Local Services Realignment, which downloaded responsibility for housing to municipalities in 2001, has coincided with growing homelessness and a sharp decline in affordability.

As TD Economics reported in 2003, provincial governments more effectively run programs such as affordable housing, that have income-redistributive aspects to target highly mobile recipients. Provinces need to engage municipalities as partners, not abdicate housing responsibility entirely.

When provincial housing ministers sit down in September, they should push the federal government to continue funding for housing, and to make long-term commitments.

But provinces need to show that they have — and will — put the money to good use. They need to show that they can develop programs that suit their current housing needs, and that these programs are capable of improving affordability and reducing homelessness.

In short, the provinces need to hold up their end of the bargain. Before they ask for more money for housing, they should have some idea of what they’re going to do with it.

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