Setbacks and successes in the fight for affordable housing

In Canada, 300,000 people are homeless, and many millions more are precariously housed. All spheres of society have a role to play in addressing inadequate housing and homelessness. CPJ and people of faith across the country have been at the forefront in calling on the federal government to make housing and homelessness a national priority by making important policy changes and providing much-needed funding.

Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed some setbacks on the housing front, but there have also been signs of hope and progress. Here’s the latest:

Setbacks: Housing campaign defeated in Parliament

Earlier this year, CPJ co-led a major national campaign to educate Canadians about the housing crisis and point to the need for a national housing strategy with increased federal investments. The non-partisan campaign encouraged groups and individuals to get behind Bill C-400 (which called for the development of a national housing strategy) so that it could get to the next stage of the legislative process for fuller debate and revisions. Over 60 major national and regional organizations were involved, including the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Nurses Association, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Habitat for Humanity, and the Wellesley Institute. Church groups included the Canadian Council of Churches, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Catholic Women’s League, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and the United Church of Canada.

Despite an incredible response across the country that galvanized support for the bill, C-400 was defeated by a vote of 153 to 129 in the House of Commons in late February. While there were frustrations over last-minute accusations from the government that contributed to the bill’s defeat, it is clear that the strong public support that was generated was noticed by decision-makers in Ottawa.

Successes: Homelessness initiatives renewed

Thanks in part to the momentum generated by churches and civil society organizations across the country in the lead-up to the C-400 vote, two important federal housing and homelessness initiatives were renewed in March’s federal budget.

Both the Affordable Housing Framework (AHF) and the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) were renewed for five years (an improvement over the less certain three-year funding cycles of the past). The AHF funds the provision, construction, and repair of affordable housing while the HPS helps communities address homelessness through supports and other services. Under the terms of the renewal, the HPS funds will specifically go to programs using the proven-effective “housing first” model.

While it was expected that the AHF and HPS were likely to be renewed, it certainly wasn’t a sure thing. The renewal terms and amounts came as a surprise to most housing experts, who attributed this victory – in part – to CPJ and our partners.

Moving forward

On May 1, The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association hosted a panel discussion on housing and homelessness with over 460 delegates at their annual congress in Ottawa. The panel featured MPs from the three main political parties – Brad Butt (Conservative), Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet (NDP), and Hon. John McCallum (Liberal) – as well as Harriet McLachlan from Canada Without Poverty.

The panelists each gave their perspective on how the federal government can play a role in reducing poverty and improving housing stability. Brad Butt affirmed that the federal government should show leadership when it comes to housing, but maintained that Ottawa shouldn’t be dictating standards or best practices to the provinces. “This is a complicated issue; housing needs and challenges are vastly different from one region to another,” said Butt. “The best solutions are direct supports like rent subsidies, not more bureaucracy,” he told the crowd.

McCallum gave a tongue-in-cheek word of congratulations to Butt and the Conservative Party for their investments in the AHF and HPS programs, something McCallum said, “Conservatives don’t believe in,” and runs counter to their belief that housing should be solely a provincial responsibility. McCallum called on the government to do even more, receiving applause from the crowd when he told Butt that, “the fact that the needs across the country are very different doesn’t preclude the need for a national housing strategy.”

When the panel was opened to questions from the floor, one CHRA delegate stood up and affirmed the good work carried out in recent months by CPJ and Dignity for All: the campaign for a poverty-free Canada. When he asked the panelists if they would consult and consider re-introducing legislation for a national housing strategy, both Boutin-Sweet and McCallum said they were consulting with their parties and Canadians before taking any next steps. Butt said he would be willing to sit on a working group to review the impact of federal, provincial, and municipal tax codes to determine if they were a disincentive to the development of new rental housing.

The questions and comments of the CHRA delegates were representative of people across the country: voters are increasingly concerned about the housing crisis and believe proactive federal leadership is needed. Will a potential Speech from the Throne this fall signal a new direction in Canadian housing policy? Canadians can only hope so.

Simon is CPJ's former Socio-Economic Policy Analyst.

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