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Why Housing First failed in Canada

No matter who you vote for, Canadians will keep falling into homelessness

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisHousing

A tower crane seen from the marina of Port Credit, Mississauga, Ontario. Photo by Jarrett E. Hather/Flickr.

Every day more Canadians are being pressed into homelessness. Shelters are overflowing. Tent cities are ubiquitous. Diseases more commonly associated with refugee camps have popped up with alarming frequency in inner-cities across the country. The numbers are devastating: up to 300,000 Canadians will experience homelessness this year—a substantial increase from the 235,000 who were homeless in 2016. Cities are scrambling to find solutions; sanctioned encampments, increased shelter capacity, forced removal by police. Nothing is working.

It’s a crisis the federal government has been trying to solve. In 2017 the Government of Canada launched the multi-billion dollar Reaching Home Initiative, which funded Housing First-oriented programming across the country. Housing First focuses on providing unconditional, permanent housing as quickly as possible to people experiencing homelessness, and connecting them with other supportive services afterward. It is a well-researched policy approach with a long track record of successfully reducing homelessness in North America and Europe.

It should have worked here, too.

But it didn’t.

Despite the tens of thousands of people housed by dedicated teams of social workers, more people are homeless now than ever before. It turns out Housing First can only end homelessness if people can be housed sustainably. No amount of time and money spent putting people into homes can compensate for an investor-captured housing market that pushes them out again.

If we want to understand how to make Housing First work in Canada, we could do no better than talk to experts out of Finland, a nation with one of the most successful Housing First programs in the world. This is exactly what happened earlier this year when federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser sat down with representatives from Finland’s Housing First system in a lecture hall at Carleton University.

As the panel discussion began key differences between the Finnish and Canadian approaches to Housing First quickly became apparent. “Housing First doesn’t work without having the housing first,” quipped Juha Kahila, head of international affairs for Finland’s foremost housing NGO, Y-Foundation. “So we have a quite sizable affordable housing stock in Finland, we have around 400,000 affordable homes in Finland [almost 15 percent of the nation’s housing stock].”

Finnish policymakers understand that if homelessness is going to be brought to an end people need to be able to afford their homes. This means that speculators, financialized firms, and other predacious investors have to be kept in check. To accomplish this, the government made up-front investments to build, own, and develop housing as a state. The city of Helsinki, for example, owns its own construction company, constructs purpose-built housing designed specifically to accommodate low-income citizens, and owns 60,000 social housing units. One in seven residents of the city live in city-owned housing. This creates a price floor that keeps rents low for everybody. Juha describes Finland’s philosophy of affordability in action: “they [the city] own 70 percent of the land and their goal is to have 25 percent affordable housing in all the new living areas.” Additionally, low-income citizens receive Kela, or social security benefits, from the national government—a housing allowance which can cover up to 70 percent of housing costs, including rent, maintenance, water, and heating. Both renters and owners are eligible to receive this benefit. The Kela guarantees that housing stays affordable no matter your income.

By prioritizing heavy state involvement at all levels of the housing system Finland has ensured housing costs are kept low while income support is high. The result is that homes are treated as places to live, not as speculative assets.

In response to this picture of a decommodified housing market, Minister Fraser noted that “we had a 30 year period […] where the government of Canada made a decision not to be invested in non-market housing and we’re paying for it today.” When pressed on what could be learned from the Finnish experience, Fraser responded: “There is not a market solution to homelessness, governments need to act.” But when it came time to discuss specifics, the minister’s solutions consisted exclusively of government transferring funds to the private sector to build and own new housing stock in private-public partnership schemes. This is the same failed approach that his government has taken since the 2017 launch of the Reaching Home Initiative. It’s the same approach which has turned our nation’s homes over to predacious investors and led to the worst affordability crisis in Canada’s history.

This commitment to commodified housing is echoed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who recently said, in a nod to baby boomer homeowners, that “housing needs to retain its value.” The research on this is clear: as long as Canada’s housing market is allowed to retain its (wildly inflated) value, and as long as the private sector is permitted to charge extortionate rents for housing, more Canadians will fall into homelessness every day.

As the federal Liberals continue to push Canadians onto the streets, it falls to the provinces and cities to act. Municipal and regional governments can deploy a range of tools to help mitigate the worst effects of the affordability crisis, including rent control, eviction protection, investments in non-market housing, new taxes on small and large landlords, adjusted zoning laws, and housing-focused income support. Unfortunately, most jurisdictions are going the other way: provinces are removing rent controls across the country, city councils waffle in the face of NIMBYism, and all levels of government are shying away from providing income supports capable of supporting a minimum standard of living.

The path forward is clear. To end homelessness we must reclaim our housing infrastructure from the investor class, produce homes as if they were essential goods rather than investment vehicles, and ensure that all Canadians have the resources necessary to lead dignified, comfortable lives. We can do all of these things. We can restore housing affordability and end homelessness. The only thing we lack is political will.

James Hardwick is a writer and community advocate. He has over ten years experience serving adults experiencing poverty and houselessness with various NGOs across the country.

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