10 things to know about Canada’s national housing strategy consultations

Canada’s federal government has begun national consultations on the development of a “national housing strategy.” The government is expected to release a report on November 22, which is also National Housing Day. The consultation web site is called “Let’s Talk Housing.” It includes the consultation’s stated vision, principles, themes, intended outcomes and key dates.

Here are 10 things to know:

1. In Canada, social expenditure by government—measured as a percentage of GDP—is considerably less than the OECD average. According to OECD figures, Canada’s total public social expenditure is approximately 17% of GDP, while the OECD average is almost 22%. (To see these figures for yourself, check out the OECD web site here.)  To put this into perspective, every 1% of GDP translates into approximately $560 per Canadian per year.  Public social expenditure includes spending on social housing and social assistance (i.e. welfare, disability benefits).  A full list of items included in these OECD figures can be found here.

2. Canada has considerably less social housing per capita than most OECD countries. The percentage of housing units in Canada that are considered social housing (i.e. government-subsidized units for low- and moderate-income households) is approximately 5%.  To put this into perspective, England’s rate is 18%, France’s is 19%, Sweden’s is 32% and the rate for the Netherlands is 34%.[1]

3. Historically, when Canada’s federal government has led on social housing, provinces and territories have followed with spending of their own. When it comes to subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income households in Canada, the leadership role of the federal government is important.  Indeed, when the federal government has offered matching dollars for new social housing units, provincial and territorial governments have typically agreed to match that spending with funding of their own.  And at times when such federal matching funding has not been offered, provinces and territories have typically not offered funding of their own.  Put differently, the role of the federal government matters.  A recent illustration of this can be found in the evaluation of the Affordable Housing Initiative; it found that not only did provinces, territories and third parties match federal contributions, they actually exceeded federal contributions!

4. Every year, Canada’s non-profit housing sector as a whole gets less money than the year prior to operate existing units of social housing. In other words, funding agreements are starting to expire.  In most cases, funding from government that flows to non-profit housing entities through these agreements is required in order to keep the housing maintained.  Put differently, as a lot of these agreements expire, the non-profit entity in question will be forced to ‘sell off’ some housing units. (For a quick overview of this phenomenon, see this two-minute video; for a more nuanced consideration, see this PowerPoint presentation.)[2] It was therefore welcome news for many non-profit housing providers when this year’s federal budget announced a funding extension “for all federally administered housing co-operatives with agreements expiring between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2018.”

5. It’s become common for senior levels of government to express public support for housing first; sometimes this talk is accompanied by funding support, sometimes it isn’t. The Harper government made frequent mention of housing first (i.e. the immediate provision of permanent housing to homeless persons) over the years, including in the 2013 throne speech.  But under the Harper government, annual federal funding for homelessness saw a steady erosion.  In fact, by the time the Harper government left office, annual federal homelessness funding (i.e. the annual value of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy) was worth just 35% of its 1999 value after adjusting for inflation.  In this year’s federal budget, the Trudeau government announced substantial (but time-limited) increases in funding for housing and homelessness.  During the “Let’s Talk Housing” consultations, advocates may want to praise the Trudeau government for increasing this funding, while also recommending that funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy be permanently restored to 1999 levels (which would raise its annual value to $349 million).

6. Very little rental housing has been built in Canada in the past three decades; this wasn’t the case in prior decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of new rental housing units were built each year across Canada.  Some of these units were owned by for-profit landlords, some by non-profit landlords.  Many involved one type of subsidy or another from senior levels of government.  All were built in partnership with the private sector.  In the 1980s, with the onset of neoliberalism, Canada’s federal government started to ‘pull back’ its assistance. (For a bit more nuance on this, see point #6 in this blog post.  And for a compelling visual representation of this historical trend, see slide #2 in this presentation.)  A positive way forward on this would be for the federal government to seriously consider implementing proposals made in this 2015 advocacy paper commissioned by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.  Among other things, the paper recommended the introduction of federal tax incentives for new units of rental housing.

7. On a per capita basis, Alberta has approximately half the number of rental housing units as the rest of Canada. Today, Alberta has approximately 28 apartment rental units per 1,000 people.  By contrast, Canada as a whole has 54 apartment rental units per 1,000 people.  That’s a large gap between Alberta and the rest of Canada…one that has grown in the past 25 years.[3] One likely contributing factor here has been large in-migration to Alberta over the past several decades (which makes the denominator here larger).  Another is higher incomes in Alberta, which reduce demand for rental stock (because when it comes to housing, higher-income households tend to prefer buying over renting).

8. Relative to the rest of Canada, Alberta has very few subsidized housing units. As of 2011, Alberta was home to 10% of all Canadian households, but had just 7% of all subsidized housing units (for a visual representation of this discrepancy, see Annex figure 1 on page 8 of this report).  I think at least two factors have led to this discrepancy.  First, in years past, some Alberta governments weren’t big fans of subsidized housing for low-income households (by contrast, the current provincial government recently announced the near doubling of provincial spending on housing).  Second, as mentioned above, Alberta has experienced rapid population growth over the past several decades.  In fairness to previous Alberta governments though, between 2002 and 2013, Alberta played some ‘catch up’ to the rest of Canada in the realm of subsidized housing (for more on this, see point #5 in this blog post).

9. Any national housing strategy should prioritize the housing needs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis persons. As of 2011, approximately 13% of Canadian households were considered to be in core housing need.  By contrast, approximately 19% of all Indigenous (i.e. First Nations, Inuit and Métis) households were considered to be in core housing need.  For Inuit households, the figure is 34%.  It’s also no secret that First Nations, Inuit and Métis persons are overrepresented among persons experiencing absolute homelessness in Canada.

10. The Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) has submitted its own brief as part of the national consultation. It calls for increased public social expenditure, including increased spending on social housing and supportive housing specifically.  It also calls for stable and predictable funding for non-profit housing providers, the need for increased rental stock generally and the need to focus specifically on the housing needs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis persons.  The CHF’s brief, and official response, can be viewed here.

Nick Falvo is Director of Research and Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. His area of research is social policy, with a focus on poverty, housing, homelessness and social assistance. Nick has a PhD in public policy from Carleton University. Fluently bilingual, he is a member of the editorial board of the Canadian Review of Social Policy / Revue canadienne de politique sociale. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @nicholas_falvo.

This article was first published by the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

[1] I’ve taken these figures from Steve Pomeroy’s May 2013 presentation titled “The fundamentals of housing policy & governance: A condensed, one-day course” taught at Carleton University.  Mr. Pomeroy’s primary data source was CECODHAS Housing Europe.

[2] Each year, there is usually some funding from senior orders of government (for example, funding available through this program) to develop new housing units, but typically not enough to make up for the loss of housing stock caused by the expiration of funding agreements that were signed decades previously.

[3] These figures are based on calculations made earlier this year by my colleague, Janice Chan.  She used rental housing figures from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and population statistics from Statistics Canada.

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