Why voting for municipal action on affordable housing is in everyone’s interest

Posted on October 24, 2022 in Governance Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
Oct. 23, 2022.   By James R. Dunn, Steve Pomeroy, Contributors

The affordable housing crisis in Canada is putting people on the streets or forcing them to live in inadequate or even dangerous housing.

As Ontario voters prepare to elect new municipal leaders, they should be pressing candidates on one issue above all others: housing.

The affordable housing crisis in Canada is putting people on the streets or forcing them to live in inadequate or even dangerous housing.

Because this crisis is caused by several complex and interrelated factors, it unfortunately can’t be solved with a single magic bullet. We urgently need to accelerate action on affordable housing on four fronts: the construction, acquisition and retention of affordable housing, and housing supports.

Affordable housing construction

The National Housing Strategy is a great leap forward in Canadian housing policy. Much of the funding goes directly to municipalities for construction of new, affordable rental housing units, primarily built and managed by the non-profit sector.

Municipalities need to find ways to accelerate affordable housing construction by streamlining the planning approval process, providing land for affordable housing, reducing or creatively financing development charges — a major cost driver — and helping non-profit organizations develop more homes faster.

But most “affordable” rental housing in Canada (i.e., places with modest rent) is in private market buildings. We can’t possibly build new affordable housing fast enough to compensate for the simultaneous loss of affordable market housing.

Affordable housing acquisition

As a result of processes that inflate rents, the loss of affordable market rental housing has accelerated over the last several years. From 2011-2016, Canada lost 322,000 homes renting for under $750 per month. This extended to a further loss of 230,000 units under $750 from 2016-2021.

Investors seek buildings with below-market rents. As tenants leave (either forcibly or by attrition), owners can substantially increase rents. This inflation is made possible by vacancy decontrol, where rent is only regulated if the same tenant stays in a unit. Once a tenant vacates, rent can raised to whatever the market will bear.

To help preserve affordable properties, non-profit organizations need tools for acquiring existing market rental housing with modest rents. This is much faster than new construction, helps mitigate the erosion of affordable housing stock and avoids the sometimes slow processes for new construction.

Affordable housing retention

It is important that tenants are able to stay in their units. Once they leave, the unit may be lost to the affordable market housing stock. The key challenges to tenants maintaining their tenancy are rent increases, eviction and limited or loss of incomes. More supports are needed for tenants to mitigate these issues. Keeping a tenant in their housing is tantamount to avoiding the loss of an affordable housing unit.

Housing supports

Many people with mental illness and addictions, older adults, people with disabilities and victims of violence can only maintain housing with help. Encampments are a symptom of inadequate supportive housing. And demonstration projects have shown that supportive housing for high-need clients is cost effective, reducing service use in other sectors like hospitals, emergency services, policing and the criminal justice system. But this type of supported housing is woefully undersupplied.

Older adults impact the long-term care (LTC) and acute care sectors. A study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) found that one in nine people entering LTC didn’t require that level of care. It is well-known that LTC is being used as affordable housing for low-income people who could otherwise live in the community with home care. Women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities (physical and developmental), Indigenous people and racialized people have needs for customized, culturally safe, supported housing.

When casting your municipal election ballot this fall, be sure to quiz the candidates on their commitments to these four priorities for affordable housing. It’s in everyone’s interest.

James R. Dunn is the Senator William McMaster Chair in Urban Health Equity at McMaster University and director of the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative. Steve Pomeroy is a housing policy consultant and executive adviser to the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative.


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