Will the federal Liberals keep their affordable housing promises?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
February 19, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

We’ve received a number of questions about the new federal government and the promises made during the 2015 election. The first I’ll address comes from Jeannette S.: “Will the new liberal government continue with the current provincial and federal agreements regarding rental subsidies and supplements?  Especially for seniors.”

Oh, how I wish I had a crystal ball! I can’t give any 100% answers to this because I’m not much of a psychic, but I am cautiously optimistic about the Liberal government’s promises to fund affordable housing in Canada. Those promises included:

  • Ten-year investment in social infrastructure
  • Investment in affordable housing and seniors’ facilities
  • Build new housing units
  • Renovate existing units
  • Support municipalities in continuing geared-to-income subsidies in housing co-operatives
  • Remove GST on investments in new affordable housing units
  • Modernize the New Homebuyers Plan
  • Review high-priced markets like Toronto and Vancouver
  • “…conduct an inventory of all available federal lands and buildings that could be repurposed, and make some of these lands available at low cost for affordable housing in communities where there is a pressing need”

OJustin Trudeau speaking at the 519 Community Centreur 2015 election guide compared party plans for housing to the recommendations made in the 2014 State of Homelessness in Canada report. While there was no firm plan to end homelessness in their platform, the Liberal party seems to value evidence-based decision-making (such as Housing First, restoring the long-form census) and committed to continue funding existing subsidies. Their proposal of building 25,000 new units over 10 years is beyond what the report recommended (at least 8,800 per year). It also takes a three-story approach of addressing supportive, social and private housing that includes interventions for people experiencing chronic and episodic homelessness; and suggested specific tax incentives for new developments. Overall, the Liberal party’s plan for affordable housing is very good, but the real question is: will these promises become reality?

We won’t know how much of the federal budget will be allotted to affordable housing until it is announced, which some sources say will happen in late March. In an economic downturn that shows little sign of reversing, decision-makers are sometimes quick to turn away from long-term social investments and instead implement quick-fix solutions that justify their power and create superficial, short-term jobs and economic boosts – tactics we would be wise to watch out for. In fact, the Liberal party has been behind some of the biggest cuts to social housing in Canada.

How did we get here?

In recent years, the Liberal party has become seen as an “affordable housing friendly” party – in 2012, they called for a long-term, federal strategy. But this wasn’t always the case.

In 1993, the federal Liberal government ended funding for new operating agreements between The Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation (CMHC) and housing providers; and in 1996, responsibility for housing was shifted to provincial/territorial and municipal governments. (Safia Lakhani summarizes this history and what happened afterwards very well in her article for rabble.)

As Falvo notes in Addressing Affordable Housing in Canada, the 1990s were a time of peak neoliberalism in Canada – which translates to tax cuts, slashed social services and public infrastructure, and a “survival of the fittest” ideology based on the primacy of the “free market.” These attitudes were blatantly reflected in Ontario under the Harris government, when huge cuts were made to the provincial tax base, healthcare, education, and social assistance that are still felt today. While later governments did invest in affordable housing, it was in much smaller amounts and in the form of short-term projects.

The Harper government, as Doberstein and Smith wrote in their report, has a mixed record on homelessness and housing. While it accepted Housing First as an evidence-based approach and facilitated the first coordinated point-in-time counts, it made cuts to the Homelessness Partnering Strategy and other key areas in social infrastructure; and made no long-term federal commitment to resolving the housing crisis.

After all of this, the Liberal party’s latest promises are like a breath of fresh air. But how can we make sure they’re kept?

Ways to take action

While we can’t predict the future, we can take action to try to shape it into what we’d like it to be. The key question for us, as Beth H. asked in our website survey, is: "How can we collectively engage/hold accountable the new federal government on the creation of a National Housing Strategy; and the investment in affordable housing and homelessness programs?"

1. Get in touch with your municipal and provincial politicians

Let your local councillor, as well as your MPP, know that you care about affordable housing and what you expect to be done about it. Politicians respond most quickly to their local constituents, and they are obligated to hear our concerns and ideas. The questions from our election guide remain relevant, and encourage decision-makers to consider evidence-based recommendations. At the municipal level, ask your councillor about his/her stance on local housing projects and if he/she will be bringing it up in meetings. To hold the federal Liberal party accountable, make sure to reference their specific promises (ie. establishing a federal strategy; implementing a GST incentive for developers) and ask when these will be implemented.

You may have to write several letters/emails or make a number of calls before you get through or receive an answer. You can even drop by during open office hours for face-to-face meetings – an ideal scenario when possible.

2. Organize

Network with neighbourhood associations and community organizations. These can be community health centres, social service organizations, tenant boards, business associations, anti-poverty groups, etc. See what housing initiatives they support and find out how you can help in already existing projects or campaigns – there’s always more strength and resources in numbers.

3. Stay engaged

This one can be tough, because we all only have so much time and energy to dedicate to advocacy – a notoriously laborious activity that tends to burn us out – but it’s important. Check in on council meeting minutes, find out what is being discussed and how councilors vote on housing. Keep your eyes peeled for news announcing the federal budget in March and if affordable housing isn’t included, make sure politicians at every level hear about it. Don’t let exclusions be explained away by “a bad economy.” The Liberals were voted in based on a housing-heavy platform, it is reasonable to hold them to it.

4. Position housing as a human right

Ultimately, homelessness will not be resolved unless a plethora of other social issues are also resolved: poverty, abuse/neglect, trauma, marginalization, colonization, racism – and unfortunately, more. To move towards ending homelessness we will not only need everything the Liberal party proposed, but also to talk about housing as more than a hot commercial market: it is a human right. If we conceptualize housing as something everyone is entitled to and deserves, then it becomes much easier to advocate for long-term investments in a time of economic austerity.

For more information on what you can do to help end homelessness, check out some of our related posts:

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.

Photo credit: Alex Guibord

Emma Woolley is an undergraduate student in York University's Social Work program, with a background in publishing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing and homelessness, progressive approaches and care in mental health, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is a widely published freelance writer, with a large portion of her work focusing on gender issues within digital culture and technology. 

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