Whether you call it a “housing crisis” or une crise du logement,” whether you’re worried about “homelessness among veterans” or housing needs of “women and children fleeing violence,” there’s no denying that housing problems got a lot of attention during the federal election.

All the main party leaders used the term “housing crisis” on the campaign trail and it was embedded in party platforms and policy documents. But the rhetoric of affordability employed across the political spectrum obscured a core component of the housing conversation: Housing is a human right.

“The right to housing goes beyond a rallying cry, beyond a speaking point, beyond an idea. It’s actually a substantive legal framework,” explains Michèle Biss, project manager for the National Right to Housing Network.


Housing as a human right

The human right to housing is enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It’s also referenced in other United Nations treaties, from the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Canada is a signatory to all of these treaties but it was only in 2019 that the National Housing Strategy Act brought the country in line with its international commitments.

For Biss, the right to housing is “a way for us to shift the power dynamic and shift it away from real estate investment trusts, away from the high-investment actors, the high-income folks, to people who can’t afford housing.”

Realizing any human right is a gradual process but there are several urgent actions the government can take to set the tone of the new mandate. First, Canada needs a Federal Housing Advocate. The position is a commitment of the National Housing Strategy but it was not filled under the past two Liberal governments. Making that appointment within the first 100 days in office was a component of the most recent Liberal platform and housing organizers will be watching closely to see whether the party makes good on that promise.

Even though the needs of homeowning voters are often the focus of party platforms, core housing need is a long-standing crisis among low-income renters who are disproportionately Indigenous, racialized, elderly and disabled.

Second, the federal government must address the pandemic-related evictions and arrears crisis facing renters across the country. Providing direct financial support to tenants would secure the housing rights of countless residents and create consistency across a patchwork of provincial emergency measures, many of which have already expired. The National Right to Housing Network and other partner organizations have already come together to design and cost a rental support benefit for residential tenants, similar to the one already introduced to support commercial renters.

Renewing Canada’s commitment to housing as a human right is also a way to end quibbling between provinces, territories, municipalities and the federal government over jurisdictional responsibilities. Canada’s international obligations create a reason to collaborate across governments because rights claimants have access to independent monitoring and hearings if their needs are not met. A rights-based approach also creates an opportunity to recognize the leadership of Indigenous communities in developing alternatives to colonial housing systems. As Biss says, “the right to housing should flow through every single government decision.”


Holding the government accountable for housing promises

Over four decades working in co-operative and non-profit housing, Harvey Cooper has seen governments come and go, watched promises get made and broken. According to Cooper, a former deputy executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, “When the lack of housing people can afford starts hitting middle- and upper-income earners, that’s frankly when we have politicians’ attention.”

Cooper has hit on a conundrum at the heart of Canadian policy-making: even though the needs of homeowning voters are often the focus of party platforms, core housing need is a long-standing crisis among low-income renters who are disproportionately Indigenous, racialized, elderly and disabled.

“So what you have to ensure is that you’re putting the most effort into those most in need,” Cooper explains. “And the only way that’s going to happen is if those most in need are making enough noise that it dominates the public policy agenda.”

But making noise and proposing solutions are only effective if there is someone inside government ready to listen. For this reason, the new government must also appoint a dedicated Minister of Housing. This role is essential to make sure someone is completely focused on making sure that promises made during the election are kept.

Another way to make sure Ottawa is ready to listen is to show how housing is central to other priorities, from welcoming refugees to tackling the climate crisis. The pandemic has proven that it’s impossible to self-isolate without adequate housing and that overcrowded conditions only exacerbate outbreaks. Moreover, the tragedy in long-term care could have been avoided by prioritizing supports that allow seniors to remain at home as their needs evolve.


Affordable housing can be culturally appropriate

Cheryll Case is a Black urbanist who has seen firsthand the way changes to housing can transform a community. She first became interested in housing as a human right when she noticed bungalows being knocked down and replaced with larger, single-family homes. As an urban planner she knew “those same houses would not be permitted to be developed as affordable housing.”

Instead of using her knowledge of the development process to pave the way for more expensive homes, she’s now working in Toronto’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood to build solidarity between homeowners and renters. Her aim is to show “there’s a way for everyone to be involved in affordable housing supply.”

Another aspect of the right to housing is creating culturally appropriate homes. Case’s community engagement work has identified “a huge love for having gardening space.” Brainstorming new approaches to balcony gardens, kitchen size and number of bedrooms, Case calls on decision-makers and designers alike to “look at what aspects of housing would make it feel more like home.”

Translating local organizing into national outcomes will require investments, not just announcements by the new government. As Cooper sees it: “The federal government has to be the leader, has to be the main major financial contributor, has to set the pace to ensure that Canadians are well housed.”

The federal government has many policy instruments and programs that it can use — and many that it is already using. Federal leaders must deploy them with a creativity and urgency that reflects their rhetoric. They must also do so with a deep commitment to the principle that housing is a human right that the federal government must advance.