‘How are people expected to shelter in place if they are inadequately housed?’

With 2020 drawing to a close, we reached out to some of our first FPR contributors to ask them to look back on what they wrote in the early days of the pandemic and reflect on what’s happened since then.

Elizabeth McIsaac’s original piece about affordable housing ran on April 12, 2020. You can see the rest of our Q&A series here.


Q: Why did you think affordable housing was a policy priority at the beginning of the pandemic? Do you still feel that way? Why or why not?

A: Unaffordable rents were a major issue even prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 made it an urgent public health issue. What we needed to answer was: “How are people expected to shelter in place if they are inadequately housed, or if they can no longer pay the rent?” As a fundamental human right, adequate housing remains a crucial priority – I don’t think we have found the right answer yet.


Q: You called for additional rental support and an emergency benefit for renters with acute housing needs. What actually happened?

A: We were hoping to see a federal response to ensure that no one across Canada would fall through the cracks and be put at risk of homelessness as a result of the pandemic. What actually happened was much more patchwork. The federal government has been channelling funds through its Reaching Home strategy, which has helped enable physical distancing in the shelter system and support homelessness-prevention work. But specific supports for people struggling to pay their rents was never delivered federally. Instead, it was left to the provinces and territories, but only British Columbia and Quebec created specific programs to help tenants.


Q: What expectations about the pandemic did you have that contributed to your recommendations? Did they come to pass?

A: From the limited evidence available, it appears that while rent arrears did increase, they did not skyrocket. The CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit], on the whole, allowed tenants to continue paying their rent in full. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as we know that tenants usually sacrifice other basic needs, namely food, in order to pay the rent. However, arrears did climb, and not everyone who was struggling financially was able to access the CERB. For others, CERB wasn’t enough. As the evictions moratoriums lift and court proceedings resume, often online, the prospect of a rise in homelessness looms large.


Q: What should policy-makers’ priorities be in this space in the coming months?

A: All levels of government have been talking about “building back better,” and there are many visions for this – a green economy, an equitable recovery, fairer work standards, adequate incomes, to name a few. But we haven’t heard policy-makers seriously talking about how we can “build back better” in the housing market. We cannot return to the housing market we had before the pandemic. The status quo was unsustainable; all numbers were going in the wrong direction. Policy-makers should be thinking about what a post-pandemic housing market should look like and what policies we need to get there, such as rent controls, house-building, homelessness prevention and vacancy taxes. Policy-makers should be asking: “How can we advance the human right to housing?”


Q: What policy position or assumption did you hold heading into 2020 that has been most challenged by the pandemic?

A: That policy change is glacially slow, and that governments are not nimble. In the spring this was proven wrong when the federal government designed and delivered a colossal income benefit in a matter of weeks.


Q: Finally, it’s time to share a plug: What’s a new information source, advocacy campaign or group, book, etc., that you discovered this year that you think more people in the policy community should know about?

A: As homelessness became even more visible in Toronto throughout the pandemic, with encampments appearing in city parks and public spaces, a group of volunteers called the Encampment Support Network responded by checking in on people and providing basic necessities. At first, the volunteers were largely artists and musicians who wanted to use their free time in a meaningful way. They have proven to be strong allies to people experiencing homelessness and have become important advocates for their fundamental human rights, including the right to adequate housing.

Elizabeth McIsaac is President of Maytree, a foundation that works to advance systemic solutions to poverty through a human rights approach.


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