The Trudeau government’s first budget announced new investments in affordable housing. Its decision for a National Housing Strategy was warmly welcomed by social housing providers and right to housing supporters. These developments inspired hope for the 1.6 million Canadians struggling to pay their rent, especially the 770,000 who spend more than 50% of their income on rent.
Federal Finance Minister William Morneau has proposed we ensure access to “safe, adequate and affordable” housing for all Canadians. It’s a commendable goal, ambitious as it may be. The negative consequences of the lack of affordable housing for our health, well being and economy are vast, and they were amplified as new federal investments slowed and stopped over the past 20 years.
In a 2015 report the Director of Public Health for Montréal argued that access to quality housing is a necessary precondition of health. The report highlights that the scarcity of rental units and high rent prices have meant that many dwellings, even substandard and unhealthy ones are rented. The lack of affordable housing also has a direct impact on household food security, especially for low-income families.
"Some programs would have a more lasting, structural impact than others."
A survey conducted in preparation for the report showed that 45% of renter households whose affordability ratios are above 30% reported at least one indicator of food insecurity. Members of these households are more likely to experience problems of “obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and several cancers, to name a few.”
Meanwhile, the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development has launched a consultation for the National Housing Strategy
The housing difficulties faced by low and middle income households almost always have a financial aspect, so any program leading to more affordable rents would be welcome. But some programs would have a more lasting, structural impact than others, both for households in need of support and the housing market too.
Toward those more lasting, structural impacts, and the best health outcomes for all Canadians, the Québec community housing movement is looking at what sort of impacts we might see in the short, middle and long terms.
The Réseau Québécois des OSBL d’Habitation (RQOH) represents the 1,200 Non-Profit housing providers that manage 50,000 units in the province of Québec. Based on our work, we believe that the National Housing Strategy should support and mainly rely on social and community housing for meeting peoples’ needs. RQOH’s Executive Director Stéphan Corriveau said it well, “the fact that so many Canadian households are still in core housing need and that the number of those experiencing or at risk of homelessness is still dramatically high is proof that the private housing market cannot, alone, meet the variety of existing needs.”
Community housing has the advantage of providing a lasting solution to housing affordability problems. Its operation is not intended to generate surplus, but if they occur they’re used to improve the offer to tenants or support new housing projects. Community housing rental prices are lower and increase more slowly than on the for-profit market, so the contribution needed for allowing tenants to pay a rent adjusted to their income is also lower. What’s more, the existence of a housing stock sheltered from the speculative trends in the private market serves as a counterbalance to the tendency of rising costs of rental housing.
But it's not just about affordability. We need structural supports to go beyond the financial factors, and the private market hasn't shown it has the capacity for that.
Corriveau and the RQOH challenge us to think beyond housing. “Just think about the issues facing people experiencing homelessness or those who have mental health or substance abuse problems,” Corriveau has proposed. “These people certainly need affordable housing, but they will also benefit from an environment that facilitates or provides them support suitable to their needs. Without such community support, they may find themselves again in a situation of residential instability.”
Social housing projects facilitate the delivery of community support services to residents. A survey conducted in the summer of 2015 by the Fédération des OSBL d’Habitation de Montréal confirmed the efficiency of community support for tenants with special needs. Of the 1,777 tenants surveyed — all of them living in housing NPOs — over 55% had been living in their housing for at least three years, while 20% had been there more than ten.
After the stopping of federal investments some twenty years ago, the Québec government implemented its own programs that enabled the delivery of 36,000 social and community housing units for a variety of households — families, seniors with slight loss of autonomy, single people with special needs. Two studies carried out on behalf of the Société d’Habitation du Québec documented and evaluated the social and economic impacts of the programs this governmental body has implemented. Among these impacts is an improvement in the health of people who benefit from social housing.
"It's not just about affordability. We need structural supports to go beyond the financial factors, and the private market hasn't shown it has the capacity for that."
We know affordable housing gives people more financial flexibility, allowing them to eat better and get the pharmaceuticals they need. It reduces stress, exposure to allergens and contaminants, and the need to access health and social services. Taking into account the program costs, net savings generated by this reduction are estimated at more than $129 million annually. Providing decent, affordable housing to those who need it is just a smart investment, plain and simple.
RQOH, its many allies, and increasingly the general Canadian public see these achievements as good indication of the direction we want for our National Housing Strategy. It should aim to supply affordable quality housing for all households in need in a clear and short time frame, focusing on the most vulnerable first. The development and the future implementation of this strategy provide us a unique opportunity to improve the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Canadians and build healthier and more sustainable communities across the whole country.
Social justice lawyer Jacques Beaudoin is coordinating the Research and Education Program at the Réseau Québécois des OSBL d’Habitation. The RQOH represents the 1,200 Non-Profit Organizations that provides some 50,000 housing units to low-revenue families, seniors and people with special needs in Québec.