COVID-19 and the policy responses it has generated have exposed our existing, and in many cases multi-generational, inequalities. Given how much power the pandemic has put in public hands, the quality and breadth of our recovery will largely depend on how seriously the public policy community and key government officials consider demands for a more equitable future — instead of a return to normal.

Perhaps the most stubborn challenge that existed pre-crisis, and therefore requires a pandemic-level sense of urgency coming out of the crisis, is housing access. How can we talk of stopping and restarting an economy, but not figure out how to build affordable housing?

COVID-19 creates the space for all levels of government to come together with the private- and not-for-profit sectors to massively scale up our housing supply efforts. That effort, aimed first at meeting the needs of those underserved by the market, can increase access for all.

 

Long-time crisis laid bare by COVID-19

The housing crisis is national, and it is acute. In Toronto, 10,000 people sleep in shelters or on the streets; thousands more are counted among the hidden homeless (those with temporary or insecure accommodations); renters are increasingly paying an unsustainable amount of their income on housing; and demand far exceeds supply at almost every level of need. Even the broad group of middle-income earners in Ontario is struggling, with recent data indicating young professionals and families are leaving the Greater Toronto Area in the hopes of being able to afford a place to call home. The shortage of affordable housing, once just a big-city problem, is now felt in small and medium-sized communities – with population growth and demand far exceeding supply and incomes relatively flat over time. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines housing as affordable if rent accounts for less than 30 per cent of an individual’s income; according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index, 40 per cent of Canadians are spending more than that per 2016 census data.

COVID-19 has shown that housing is the first line of defence against risks to health. Every day, public health authorities ask Canadians to “stay home,” explicitly linking housing to public health like never before. The homeless are in serious danger of exposure to the virus as they live in congregated living settings. Hundreds of thousands of others face housing and health precarity as they lose their jobs and are unable to make rent payments, saved only by temporary eviction freezes.

Struggling renters and homeowners alike have virtually no affordable alternatives, a problem that long preceded COVID-19 and continues to disproportionately impact marginalized and vulnerable groups. Given the importance of housing to wellbeing and what is at stake in its absence, any policy conversation about housing must be grounded in the recognition that safe, adequate and affordable housing is a human right – something that both the federal government and the City of Toronto have recently acknowledged.

 

A massive scale-up plan

So how do we make the right a reality? Governments must recognize and take seriously their obligation to ensure that everyone can enjoy the equal benefit of housing. This could involve a number of measures, including the use of regulatory or taxation power to require that certain types of housing are  built, using incentives to nudge the market in the right direction and – as we discuss below – making a significant investment in the construction of new housing, as government often does in other areas of infrastructure.

In David Macdonald’s Unaccommodating: Rental Housing Wage in Canada, he finds that out of the 795 neighbourhoods that make up Canada’s census metropolitan areas, a full-time minimum-wage worker could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in 24 of them (three per cent) and a one-bedroom apartment in 70 of them (nine per cent). All levels of government have focussed on the demand side of the housing equation and have struggled to address the supply side in any significant way. Programs to help individuals and families secure or more easily afford housing exist, but increasingly, that housing is nowhere to be found.

Direct rental supports like the new Canada Housing Benefit are welcomed and urgently needed, but are also severely limited. The same is true on the home-ownership front. The First-Time Home Buyer Incentive, for example, was expected to serve about 100,000 Canadian home buyers in its first three years, but so far just over 2,000 Canadians have received funds. Demand-side policy responses alone, no matter how well intentioned, have done little to move us in the right direction.

But there’s a natural opportunity before us. The federal and provincial governments are now considering measures to jump-start the economy and get Canadians back to work. Though social infrastructure should be at the centre of this recovery, it is likely that public infrastructure will be a significant part of the plan to stimulate the economy and get people back to work. And any conversation about public works projects must include the construction of housing.

Friendly borrowing rates provide the option of building supply nationally at every level of need. Supportive, public and community housing – the types of housing that the market is least likely to build – are natural places to start. In addition to adding much-needed supply to that part of the housing sector, it also saves money elsewhere in the system; we know, for instance, that it is far more costly and ineffective to keep people in shelters than to provide permanent housing with supports in place.

The construction of public housing flatlined after the federal government nearly stopped building it entirely after 1993. Though this work has recently restarted, we’re decades behind. Now is the time for the government to redouble its efforts. Affordable housing development requires stable funding and the federal government has the greatest fiscal capacity to provide that funding. It can do this by making targeted investments to cover capital needs, including in the community housing sector.

Provincial and local governments have a considerable role to play, too, through regional growth strategies, land use planning, funding for community housing and homelessness prevention, and service delivery, among other interventions. A renewed sense of cooperation between levels of government might be enough to move the needle, ideally as part of a broader agenda designed to address racial inequity, inclusive economic growth and climate change.

 

History is on our side

The good news is, it’s been done before. After the Second World War, the Wartime Housing Corporation (later the CMHC) built thousands of homes across Canada for war workers and veterans. Though they were designed to be prefabricated and de-commissioned, many remained after the war, and in 1947, the WHC transferred 30,000 homes to the CMHC.

The 1944 National Housing Act, combined with the founding of what was then called the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1946, placed the government at the centre of a postwar housing boom. In the decades that followed, right up until the early 1990s, the federal government played an evolving but consistently active role in building housing for the working class (and, yes, those working hard to join it). Postwar single-family units and apartment towers offered affordable home ownership for years, and they remain the backbone of Canada’s purpose-built rental stock.

There is now a new call to action. Working with housing-sector partners and other levels of government, Canada should invest heavily in ramping up its building efforts as part of the National Housing Strategy, with the aim of producing 20,000 affordable units annually for the next decade. Annual targets for public, community and supportive units should be established based on need. The federal government should also work with the provinces on training and skills development to address labour force concerns, develop a plan to build housing in rural and northern regions where construction can be uniquely challenging, and earmark funding for Indigenous housing, both for net new units and capital repairs.

With almost all income groups in need of more housing and more housing access, there is no reason why the post-pandemic housing approach shouldn’t mirror the postwar housing approach, the results of which are now familiar in towns and cities across Canada.

 

Caremongering at scale

There’s been a lot of publicity in recent weeks of people taking care of each other – or “caremongering.” The stories of sacrifice and hard work are inspirational, but there’s no better way to facilitate caremongering consistently than to support the wellbeing of Canadians, especially traditionally marginalized groups. After all, public and social programs, funded through tax dollars, are the original caremongering.

Even though governments are taking on large amounts of debt right now, they still have the capacity to borrow, and should make full use of that borrowing power moving forward to improve housing access. The lack of safe, adequate and affordable housing is neither unsolvable nor a foregone conclusion; rather, it is a human rights and public health crisis that demands to be treated like one.

 

Dani Saad is a public service leader and policymaker who has spent nearly a decade working in public policy, politics and non-profit governance, who currently serves on several non-profit boards and is co-chair of CivicAction’s Emerging Leaders Network. Alyssa Brierley is a human rights lawyer currently serving as the Executive Director of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA), Canada’s oldest non-governmental organization working to advance the right to housing. She previously served as a social, health, justice and labour policy adviser to Ontario’s provincial government.

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