City has a useful plan but still needs funding

Posted on January 15, 2008 in Governance Debates – comment – City has a useful plan but still needs funding
January 15, 2008
Nick Falvo

Over the past decade, media attention surrounding homelessness has been widespread, prompting Canadians to become increasingly concerned about a mounting social crisis.

Shelter usage has been growing and reputable surveys have been showing increases in the homeless population.

In the 1990s, after major cutbacks to social programs (including the cancellation of federal funding for new government-assisted housing units), pressure mounted on governments to respond.

By 1998, the mayors of Canada’s big cities declared that homelessness had reached the point where it could be considered a “national disaster.”

Opinion polls show that most Canadians are aware that homelessness has been increasing. Most also believe that the number of homeless people can be reduced.

A patchwork of government initiatives to provide both direct assistance to the homeless and new affordable housing has been announced since the late 1990s.

To date, however, government efforts have been too little, too late. Indeed, we have not come even close to matching the 25,000 affordable housing units built annually in Canada before the massive cuts of the 1990s.

Compounding the homelessness problem is the fact that increases to social assistance have been only nominal.

In real terms, social assistance benefit levels in Ontario – after having been ravaged during the Mike Harris years – are still lower than when the McGuinty government was first sworn into office in 2003.

Regrettably, housing on the private market is unaffordable for most low-income Canadians.

In Toronto, average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,060; it is only profitable for the private sector to build new units that rent for at least $1,500 per month. The poorest sixth of Toronto’s renters – representing roughly 125,000 households – can afford a maximum monthly rent of only $290.

Not surprisingly, waiting lists for social (that is, government-subsidized) housing have grown in recent years; there are currently about 66,000 households on Toronto’s waiting list alone.

Against this backdrop, Toronto’s recently released 10-year affordable housing plan, entitled “Housing Opportunities Toronto,” comes as something of a breakthrough. It is a road map of what ought to be spent on homelessness and affordable housing in Toronto over the 2008-2018 period.

It does not try to take the easy way out by focusing exclusively on the chronically homeless – who represent less than 1 per cent of those in real need of housing. To be sure, it features the following sober commentary:

“To succeed, Toronto must assist some 200,000 households who either do not have a home, cannot afford where they live, live in substandard conditions, cannot afford to buy or may lose their home. In general, these are households with incomes of up to $36,000 (single) to $61,000 (family of five) …”

Nor is the Toronto plan revenue-neutral: It comes with an annual price tag of just under half a billion dollars.

City staff plan to undertake public consultations on the plan over the coming months.

This will be followed by the development of a more comprehensive “Affordable Housing Plan,” for review by city council.

Kudos to Toronto for not trying to sweep this social crisis under the carpet.

Of course, one major obstacle remains: This blueprint has yet to be funded.

Understandably, the plan will call on Queen’s Park and Ottawa to provide the lion’s share of the new funding required.

All of this comes at time when the United Way reports of deepening poverty among Toronto families and with a provincial premier telling us he wants to do something about it.

Now the real test begins.

Nick Falvo is the author of Gimme Shelter! Homelessness and Canada’s Social Housing Crisis. He works at Street Health, in Toronto.

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