With long wait times for social housing, what can be done to meet the housing needs of homeless people and those at-risk?

Homeless Hub
October 21, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

The Homeless Hub has written extensively on affordable housing across Canada, and the lack thereof. Just yesterday we released our 2016 State of Homelessness in Canada report, where we outlined how we can collectively prevent and end homelessness in Canada. However, I will keep this entry specifically on the topic of wait lists, and what can be done to support the housing needs of the homeless population and of those at-risk. Before going into further details, I will clarify what is meant by ‘social housing’ and ‘affordable housing’.

Social housing specifically refers to housing that is subsidized by the government. It provides safety and stability to people with low-income, and is the cheapest form of decent housing available in communities across Canada.  On the other hand, Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) defines affordable housing as being much broader and includes housing provided by the private, public and not-for-profit sectors as well as all forms of housing tenure (i.e. rental, ownership and cooperative ownership). It also includes temporary as well as permanent housing such as emergency shelters, transition housing and supportive housing.

According to CMHC, housing is considered affordable when a household spends less than 30% of its pre-tax income on adequate shelter. Households that spend more than 30% of their income on shelter are deemed to be in core housing need. Those that spend 50% or more on shelter are in severe housing need. CMHC reported that over 27% of Canadian households live in core housing need and 10.5% are in severe housing need. In other words, Canada is in a severe housing crisis.

As the private rental market is out of reach for those who are homeless and a heavy financial burden for those at-risk, it is essential that we find a way to deal with long wait list times and invest in alternate solutions beyond social housing.

Years-Long Wait for Housing

Over the years, social housing has become the go-to solution when discussing ways of finding homes for people staying in emergency shelters and transition housing. Unfortunately, it often takes years before a person or a family obtains a unit. The situation is so critical that many people give up after years of waiting and fall through ‘system cracks’ by couchsurfing, living in dangerous situations and/or environments, bouncing from shelter to shelter, or continuing to survive in core or severe housing need without any hopes of ever getting a social housing unit.

A number of municipalities and provinces publicize their social housing wait list figures, however, these numbers alone don’t provide a comprehensive picture of the supply and demand pressures for all types of affordable housing. What these numbers do provide is an important insight into the financial needs of many Canadian families and the urgency with which a government response is required to address this housing crisis.

171, 360 Ontario families, seniors, single adults and couples on waiting lists for rent-geared-to-income housing in 2015
Media Folder: 

With wages failing to keep up with the rising cost of private market housing, cities across Canada cannot keep up with the demand for social housing. Estimated numbers of households currently waiting far exceeds the supply:

  • Fredericton: 500 households
  • Montreal: 24,000 households
  • Ottawa: 10,900 households
  • Toronto: 90,900 households
  • Vancouver: 9,500 households
  • Winnipeg: 2,855 households

Canada has invested very little in building and maintaining social housing infrastructure in the last 25 years. As a result, there are tens of thousands of households on city wait lists and thousands of social housing units needing urgent repairs, which add to the growing wait times. The good news is that there is renewed interest in investing in housing by the federal government. The Government of Canada is currently looking into developing and implementing a National Housing Strategy.

So what can be done to meet the housing needs of homeless people and those at-risk? To achieve this, a full range of options and services is necessary to address the present situation. I will mention some of them below, but for a complete look at our recommendations for the National Housing Strategy please see our State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report. 

Increase Funding for Prevention

Preventing homelessness by providing supportive services to those at-risk is an effective way of keeping people housed in the private rental market. Eviction prevention practices are key to keeping individuals and families in their homes and avoid homelessness altogether. A recent study found that providing supportive services to those at-risk of homelessness is a cost-effective strategy to a secure pathway to healthy and long-term housing.

Homeward Trust’s eviction prevention program supports people with financial assistance for rental subsidies while connecting households with employment, health, and income support agencies. For those where eviction is for certain, efforts are made to re-house tenants on a timely basis, thus preventing homelessness and years of waiting to be housed again.

Public-Private Partnerships

Engaging the private sector to build affordable housing for low and moderate-income families and individuals is essential to increasing the affordable housing stock. The City of Toronto offers incentives to developers to build affordable housing through their new Open Door program. Incentives include waiving permit fees, streamlining the application process and deferring development charges.

Additionally, some service providers have also developed partnerships with private landlords, which could be a promising solution for rural communities where developers are not building new homes. We have previously written about the number of ways to engage landlords as a service agency.

Build New Social Housing Units & Fund Maintenance

Thousands of rental units were built annually across Canada in the 60s and 70s but this trend has not continued. Not only do we need to increase the social housing stock but also deal with aging buildings that have extensive backlog of repairs and require major renovations. Maintaining buildings has been found to have economic, health, environmental, and social benefits for people living in social housing but also for entire communities. The lack of investments on repairs can force families out of their homes if not addressed immediately and would worsen the housing crisis.

Housing First

The basic underlying approach of Housing First is that people are better able to move forward with their lives if they are first housed. Housing is not contingent upon some type of compliance but rather a rights-based intervention that all people deserve housing. Under this key principle, people experiencing homelessness have a chance of accessing housing through different housing models including independent private rental units with on-call supports, permanent supportive housing or congregate housing. 

The Lux offered by RainCity in Vancouver provides 25 supportive housing units to people coping with substance use, mental health and physical concerns. The length of stay depends of each resident’s unique needs but they are supported with securing permanent housing while staying at the Lux. 

Let’s Talk Housing

Canada is the last G8 country without a national housing strategy. The situation is so dire that in 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing declared the state of affairs in Canada a national emergency.  A national housing strategy would call on all levels of government to work together to address some of the challenges that emerged in the last three decades from the lack of investments in affordable housing including the rise of homelessness.

The Government of Canada has been asking for feedback on what should be included in the National Housing Strategy and today is the last day to submit your views! Make your voice heard by sharing your ideas, taking a brief survey or submitting your views in writing at letstalkhousing.ca.

Images: Government of Canada, Let’s Talk Housing & Wellesley Institute

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Ambar Aleman is a graduate student working at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Previous to her role at COH, Ambar worked on a number of national advocacy campaigns and policy initiatives on violence against women, women's homlessness and youth leadership. She has also worked front-line at a women's homeless shelter serving families.

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