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Canada’s housing strategy needs a reset—human rights and public ownership, not markets

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisHuman Rights

Pedestrians walk past a homeless man in downtown Toronto. Photo by Simon Carr/Flickr.

Today in Canada, in the midst of a deepening economic downturn, more than 35,000 people are without homes while over 300,000 households face housing instability and the real threat of eviction. Last month, the Government of Canada announced its Rapid Housing Initiative, injecting $1 billion into local budgets to build 3,000 permanent affordable housing units across the country. Meanwhile, Reaching Home, Canada’s official homelessness strategy, aims to reduce chronic homelessness by half over the next decade by funding permanent or transitional housing solutions within the existing market. One might interrogate this overcautious timeframe, as homelessness persists alongside and in the shadow of enormous wealth. Less modestly, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, a cross-country coalition of individuals and organizations, has proposed 2030 as a target for eliminating homelessness altogether. Regardless of pace, the scale and severity of the problem is beyond dispute, and even the capitalist class has come to acknowledge the necessity of drastic action.

But there are significant differences between existing plans to combat homelessness, in both outcome and intent. While one observes a policy turn toward the rapid creation of new housing, a neoliberal itinerary guides many of these initiatives on the ground, where governments continue to divest from social housing and shift the burden of planning onto a non-profit sector that is caught between precarious charitable funding and anarchic market forces. As slow-paced government initiatives and non-profits declare their intention to eliminate chronic homelessness altogether, one might consider the practical difficulties of combating homelessness within the very structures that create inequality.

Since the turn of the millennium, Canadian cities have increasingly deferred to the Housing First approach to support people experiencing homelessness. The policies known by this name originated in California in the late 1980s in response to multi-tier, paternalistic systems of transitional housing, which required prospective tenants to demonstrate their readiness for independent living. More recently, the Canadian government’s National Housing Strategy (NHS) has adopted the principles of Housing First into its own approach. In Manitoba, these are implemented by way of non-profit organizations such as End Homelessness Winnipeg, a community partner in the NHS’s Reaching Home program, tasked with distributing federal funds to community organizations in the city. Here too, the principles established by Housing First have become so widely accepted that few policy makers consider their clear limitations, let alone alternatives.

Critics such as John Clarke have linked Housing First to efforts to “clean up” once-neglected downtowns and sweep them clear of the persistent “eyesore” of homelessness, in hopes of jumpstarting redevelopment. In brief historical overview, these programs seem to appear with urgency at moments of immense deregulation, development, and displacement—Los Angeles in the 1980s, New York in the 1990s, Toronto in the early 2000s, and Winnipeg over the last decade of aggressive development downtown. Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi report, a four-year, multi-city study to determine the viability of Housing First as a means of fighting homelessness, was conceived amid widespread concern about Vancouver’s homeless population in the run-up to the 2010 Olympic Games. In those several years, more than 1,500 units of affordable housing disappeared and an estimated 30,000 people were displaced by construction, while the city of Vancouver transferred billions of dollars to developers and abandoned plans for social housing on a dozen empty lots downtown. Where housing is a low priority of government, the market will offer solutions; and Housing First, one might suggest, emerges as an attempt to manage the crisis of homelessness within this distinctly liberal predicament.

The principles of Housing First are progressive in many respects. As noted above, the earlier “housing-readiness” system that it replaces required that an unhoused person reach certain milestones of rehabilitation and psychiatric treatment in order to “graduate” from shelter placement to transitional, and eventually permanent, housing. Housing First, as the name suggests, places people in housing rapidly, regardless of their participation in treatment or skills-training programs. Housing First also claims to afford greater autonomy to participants, offering supports and services on a voluntary basis, and increased choice as to the location and type of dwelling.

In essence, the Housing First approach empowers its participants as renters and thus tacitly accepts the conditions imposed on their lives by landlords and markets, rather than a panel of psychiatrists and social workers. As always, market freedom offers many false choices. How can people choose where they want to live when priority is always given to the highest bidder? How can housing be made affordable when left to the mercy of supply and demand? Proponents of market solutions always cite efficiency, and this deceptive benefit, especially in an emergency, makes the Housing First model uniquely persuasive in a capitalist society.

A woman sleeps under a blanket in a back lane in Winnipeg. Photo by John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press.

The Housing First approach’s emphasis on removing systemic impediments to housing is laudable, and yet it can’t help but position landlords as social gatekeepers. A 2015 Canadian study, titled “Perceptions of private market landlords who rent to tenants of a Housing First program,” emphasized the dependency of tenants on the perception of landlords, whose participation in Housing First programs is essential to those programs’ success. The study found that landlords consistently rent to Housing First participants for both social and financial reasons: “having a source of paid rent guaranteed by the program meant that they did not need to worry about collecting rent from the HF tenants, which lessened the demands on them.” One interviewee cited the surprising ease of evicting tenants, effected with assistance from the non-profit responsible for placement. This is not to say that the staff of these programs don’t advocate tirelessly for tenants; often, conflict resolution between parties can mitigate the threat of eviction in high-risk situations. But the fact remains that the Housing First system places the landlord’s right to property above the tenant’s right to housing.

On the whole, private rental firms and Housing First programs function as separate partners, but the 2015 study found that landlords consistently expressed an interest in greater “information, involvement, and consultation” with the program, particularly where background checks and personal histories of tenants are concerned. Not only does this potentially contravene ethical standards in health and support services, it threatens to multiply the prejudicial checks and balances that Housing First intends to avoid. The persistent interest of landlords in vetting vulnerable tenants clearly demonstrates the risk of over-reliance on the private sector. Here, as with any model that depends upon altruism, the rights and well-being of tenants are left to a profiteer’s caprice.

Housing First could comprise part of a multi-pronged solution to the slow emergency of homelessness. In its current form, however, allied to the same developers who elsewhere benefit from displacement, these initiatives have the unintentional effect of transferring housing benefits to landlords and private firms by way of unhoused people. Programs to subsidize the rents of low-income tenants, like EIA and Manitoba’s Rent Assist, play much the same role, enriching property management companies instead of investing in publicly owned housing solutions to meet social need in perpetuity. Non-profit organizations that own housing fare little better, as they remain exposed to the same market forces that affect privately owned housing.

Without public ownership undergirding a government housing strategy, artificial scarcity will continue to drive up rents and displace people from their neighbourhoods, deepening the crisis of homelessness. Proponents of Housing First programs repeatedly cite low vacancy rates as an obstacle to success, noting that landlords are less likely to accept the program’s tenants in a highly competitive market. However, vacancy rates only consider purpose-built properties that are presently on the market, rather than neglected and privately owned space. Winnipeg, for instance, boasts an alarming amount of under-utilized and vacant properties, from lavishly constructed but unsold condominiums to the hundreds of buildings sitting derelict downtown. New vacancy bylaws have begun to lightly penalize absentee landlords, but this alone only incentivizes upkeep for profit. There are more than 500 buildings standing empty in Winnipeg right now, even as more than 1,500 people face the winter unhoused. Moreover, any movement for housing must connect the emergency of homelessness to the deepening economic inequality in our society, which threatens to displace thousands more.

Developers receive tax breaks, grants, and other benefits for including affordable housing in their construction plans, but in many cases no mechanisms are in place to ensure that those units remain affordable in the longer term. And as the cost of living continues to rise above stagnant wage levels, the government classification of “affordable housing” appears dangerously out of touch with reality. According to a City of Winnipeg Comprehensive Housing Needs Assessment published in January 2020, almost 16 percent of households led by persons under 25, and 13 percent of recent immigrants, spend more than 70 percent of their total income on housing. Half of Indigenous families living downtown face affordability problems, as well as housing discrimination, on Indigenous land.

In cities like Vancouver and Toronto, recent campaigns to pressure municipal governments into expropriating vacant and derelict buildings for publicly owned affordable housing have met with some success. In Winnipeg, too, the city has the ability to expropriate from absentee landlords. Such decisive action would transform boarded-up buildings in the city’s core, housing people in proximity to the resources that they already access and the communities to which they belong. But after years of austerity, Winnipeg, like many other Canadian cities, has gutted its municipal housing department, effectively washing its hands of the responsibility to house people. Regina, Saskatoon, Sudbury, and Halifax all have two or fewer staff members dedicated to housing. Winnipeg has one. These numbers are woefully inadequate for any city that intends to create and maintain affordable housing. To put an end to this housing crisis, cities need publicly owned social housing and a well-staffed housing department to oversee its management.

Of course, it will cost money to expropriate buildings and bring them up to code. It will also cost money to maintain high-quality social housing and to expand the city’s housing division. But money is not the problem; the problem is a lack of political will. The increasingly militarized Winnipeg Police Service currently receives more than one-quarter of the city’s entire budget. Reinvesting this money in housing would address many of the root causes of crime. The city’s Housing Rehabilitation Investment Reserve and Land Dedication Reserve Fund both accrue public money and could be used to fund publicly owned social housing. Examples of mixed-use buildings that subsidize rent-geared-to-income apartments with market rents from commercial spaces and luxury units to in the same building already exist in the city. Many of the problems of these so-called “social mixing” initiatives could be addressed through public rather than private ownership.

Several weeks ago, Winnipeg received $12.5 million from the federal Rapid Housing Initiative, intended for cities and provinces to purchase existing, unused buildings for conversion into housing. As Canada’s National Housing Initiative responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and communities must rally to transform this emergency response into a sweeping reversal of decades of austerity—an era in which housing solutions have come to rely upon the private sector out of dire necessity. Cities are in urgent need of housing solutions beyond the outsourced panaceas of capitalism, and the obstacles to these solutions are not economic but political. For as long as Winnipeg and other Canadian cities passively choose not to house people, they actively affirm and secure the right of developers and landlords to profit from inequality. Housing is a human right, not a commodity, and the consumer model of tenancy isn’t working. The only way to truly guarantee that people have high-quality, affordable housing is through public ownership.

Cam Scott is a writer and independent researcher from Winnipeg, Treaty 1 territory. He is the author of ROMANS/SNOWMARE, published by ARP Books in 2019.

Rob Crooks is a musician from Treaty 1 territory.

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