Why voting for municipal action on affordable housing is in everyone’s interest

As Ontario voters prepare to elect new municipal leaders, they should lobby candidates on one issue above all others: housing.

The affordable housing crisis in Canada is pushing people homeless or living in inadequate, even unsafe housing.

Because this crisis is caused by several complex and interrelated factors, unfortunately it cannot be solved with a single silver bullet. We urgently need to accelerate action on affordable housing on four fronts: building, acquiring and maintaining affordable housing, and housing supports.

Construction of affordable housing

The National Housing Strategy represents a major step forward in Canadian housing policy. Much of the funding goes directly to municipalities for the construction of new affordable rental housing, primarily built and managed by the nonprofit sector.

Municipalities must find ways to accelerate the construction of affordable housing by streamlining the plan approval process, providing land for affordable housing, reducing or creatively funding development costs – a major cost – and helping nonprofits build more homes faster.

But most “affordable” rental housing in Canada (i.e. low-income housing) is in private market buildings. We cannot build new affordable housing fast enough to compensate for the simultaneous loss of affordable housing from the market.

Acquisition of affordable housing

Due to processes that inflate rents, the loss of affordable rental housing from the market has accelerated in recent years. From 2011 to 2016, Canada lost 322,000 homes rented for less than $750 per month. This extended to an additional loss of 230,000 units under $750 from 2016 to 2021.

Investors are looking for buildings with below-market rents. As tenants move out (by force or through attrition), landlords can increase rents dramatically. This inflation is made possible by the decontrol of vacancy, where the rent is only regulated if the same tenant remains in a dwelling. Once a tenant vacates, the rent can be increased to whatever the market will bear.

To help keep properties affordable, nonprofits need tools to acquire existing rental units on the market at modest rents. It’s much faster than new construction, helps mitigate erosion of the affordable housing stock, and avoids the sometimes slow process for new construction.

Affordable Housing Retention

It is important that tenants can stay in their accommodation. Once they leave, the unit may be lost to the affordable market housing stock. The main challenges that tenants who maintain their leases face are rent increases, evictions and the limitation or loss of income. More support is needed for tenants to alleviate these issues. Keeping a tenant in their unit means avoiding the loss of affordable housing.

Housing benefits

Many people with mental illness and addiction, seniors, people with disabilities and victims of violence can only maintain housing with help. Encampments are a symptom of inadequate supportive housing. And demonstration projects have shown that supportive housing for clients in need is cost-effective, reducing service utilization in other sectors such as hospitals, emergency services, police services and the criminal justice system. But this type of supported accommodation is woefully undersupplied.

Seniors have an impact on the long-term care (LTC) and acute care sectors. A study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) found that one in nine people entering LTC did not need this level of care. It is well known that LTCs are used as affordable housing for low-income people who could otherwise live in the community with home care. Women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities (physical and developmental), Indigenous and racialized people need responsive, culturally safe and supported housing.

When voting in your municipal election this fall, be sure to ask candidates about their commitments to these four affordable housing priorities. It is in everyone’s interest.

James R. Dunn is the Senator William McMaster Chair in Urban Health Equity at McMaster University and Director of the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative. Steve Pomeroy is a housing policy consultant and executive advisor to the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative.

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