Future more optimistic for Affordable Housing under new Liberal government

Commentary by Sue Calhoun (published in the Moncton Times & Transcript)

We mark National Affordable Housing day today (November 23rd) with much more hope and optimism than we have felt in many years.

The now-Liberal government campaigned hard, and they promised to do something about social housing. Here’s how they described the current situation:

One in eight households cannot find affordable housing that is safe, suitable, and well maintained. Without affordable housing, many Canadians simply cannot make ends meet. It makes it harder to look for work, care for children, or to get and keep a job. Stable, decent housing is essential to a strong economy, and is crucial for the middle class and those working hard to join it.”

The federal Liberals “get” that we have an affordable housing crisis in this country, and that it’s going to get worse before it gets better unless they act quickly.

We know the new government has a long “to-do” list, some items more urgent than others (such as bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the year). But let’s review what they said they would do to address the housing crisis in this country, because we intend to hold them to it.

  • As part of their new, 10-year investment of nearly $20 billion in social infrastructure, they will prioritize significant new investment in affordable housing and seniors facilities. This means that they will help build more affordable housing units and refurbish existing ones. They will renew current co-operative social housing agreements, provide operational funding support for municipalities, and renew support for Housing First initiatives that help homeless Canadians find stable housing.
  • They will eliminate all GST on new capital investments in affordable housing, and will provide $125 million per year in tax incentives to increase and substantially renovate the supply of rental housing across Canada.
  • They will direct the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the new Canada Infrastructure Bank to provide financing to support construction by the private sector, social enterprises, co-ops, and the not-for-profit sector of new, affordable rental housing for middle- and low-income Canadians. (The above bullets were taken from the Liberal’s campaign document “Real change: Affordable housing for Canadians.”)

They also promised to reinstate the mandatory long-form census to ensure data-driven decision-making on housing, and they did.

For those of us who have a home to go to at the end of the day, it’s easy to become complacent about how important that roof over your head is. As the Liberal document correctly noted, it is the base – the foundation – that allows you to do everything else that you do – go to work or school, take care of your children, entertain your family and friends, live a life that is relatively stable.

Now imagine that you suddenly become homeless. Not everyone is homeless because of mental health and/or addictions issues. Some are just down on their luck. Research has shown that many Canadians report being one or two pay cheques away from homelessness. Maybe your employer goes bankrupt, and you are suddenly out of a job. Maybe you get injured on the job or develop a health issue that makes it hard to work, and you have no savings to fall back on.

Imagine yourself in that situation, if you can. You live far from family, and don’t have a strong support network. Now you’re living in a shelter but really want to get back into the labour force. Whether you can wake up in the shelter each morning, and make yourself presentable for a job interview is one thing. You might not have money for a taxi to get you there. You may not have a cell phone, so the employer cannot call you back. And you probably don’t want to tell the employer that you’re staying at the shelter in the first place, because there’s a lot of stigma attached to that.

A few years ago, the provincial government went through the files of all the “non-elderly singles” on Income Assistance (who receive $537 per month), and required those without a doctor’s note to enroll in pre-employment/employment training.

It was kind of like putting the cart before the horse, because few people who are staying in a shelter, sleeping rough or couch surfing can manage to pull it together to get a job if they don’t have stable housing.

Now that Liberals occupy both federal and provincial government seats, we expect a bigger, more serious effort to put an end to homelessness. The province will probably say they’re broke, and can’t afford it.

I would suggest that they can’t afford to NOT put more money into affordable housing. People who are homeless are the biggest users of all our systems – the health care system, emergency rooms, mental health services, the jails, the prisons. From that standpoint, ending homelessness would represent a major saving to the health care system.

But they also need to move on affordable housing because it’s the right thing to do. In a country as rich as Canada, it’s unconscionable that 235,000 people experienced homelessness in 2014, 35,000 on any given night.

In a country as rich as Canada, it’s unconscionable that 700 individuals used the emergency shelters in Moncton at least once in 2014, and that many more slept rough (outside, in abandoned cars, in vacant buildings) or couch-surfed.

We can do better. Hopefully, moving forward, we will.

Sue Calhoun is the community development coordinator for the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee.
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