Research Matters Blog
To understand homelessness in Canada, it’s important to understand the relationship between poverty and homelessness. Poverty is not always about homelessness, but homelessness is embedded in poverty. Reducing poverty impacts homelessness, always.
Days after the 2015 federal election, a Globe and Mail opinion piece pointed out something many anti-poverty advocates already knew: “Every province and territory but British Columbia has a poverty reduction strategy in place or in development. Many cities and towns do, too. Until now, the big missing piece has been our national government.” This was timely, as the Trudeau Liberals had just promised such a strategy in their election platform. More recently, the mandate letter for Canada’s Minister of Families, Children and Social Development charged the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos with the task of leading this effort.
With that in mind, here are 10 things to know about poverty as it relates to Canada’s federal government.
- Public social spending in Canada is considerably lower than the average for other member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Indeed, total public social spending in Canada represents about 17% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By contrast, the OECD average is almost 22%. (You can see these figures for yourself here.) Every 1% of GDP translates into approximately $560 per Canadian per year. Public social expenditure includes spending on social housing and social assistance (i.e. welfare, disability benefits). A full list of items included in these OECD figures can be found here.
- Our current federal government has already taken several important initiatives pertaining to poverty reduction. In creating the Canada Child Benefit (CCB), the federal government increased federal spending on child benefits, making them more generous than previously for low- and middle-income households (but less generous for higher-income households). The CCB has reduced child poverty, though not as much as the current federal government once claimed. What’s more, the Guaranteed Income Supplement ‘top up’ for single seniors will lift an estimated 37,000 Canadians out of poverty; David Macdonald has blogged about this here. Further, expanding the Canada Pension Plan and returning the age of eligibility for Old Age Security to 65 will both reduce the number of seniors living in poverty. (The federal government has also made important announcements pertaining to new funding for affordable housing and homelessness; these initiatives will be discussed in point #9 below.)
- More public investment (including on affordable housing and child care) could create jobs and reduce poverty even further. A recent report by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards recommends that federal, provincial and territorial governments take advantage of low interest rates to make public investments. It notes: “Running deficits need not be inconsistent with a goal of not raising the debt to GDP ratio, provided that the deficits are small enough that the debt does not grow faster than GDP. Temporarily running larger deficits to fund valuable public investments while stimulating the economy during periods of poor economic performance are justifiable (p. xii).” This advice has been echoed by Bank of Canada Governor, Stephen Poloz. What’s more, even former Prime Minister Paul Martin has recently argued for the need to continue having public deficits at the present juncture. Along these lines, the Trudeau government has already announced important public investments (however, their decision to finance such investments via expensive private borrowing has been called into question both here and here).
- Canada’s federal government could do a better job of redistributing income, which in turn could reduce poverty even more. Three recent reports (all published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) make a strong case for better redistribution of income via Canada’s tax system. An October 2015 report by Lars Osberg makes a strong case in favour of tax increases for Canadians making $200,000 annually or more. A November 2015 report by Jordan Brennan argues persuasively in favour of increasing corporate income taxes. Finally, a December 2016 report by David Macdonald argues that Canada’s current tax expenditure system disproportionately benefits higher-income earners, and that a reformed system could change that.
- A National Framework on Early Learning and Child Care could reduce poverty. The federal government has already announced $500 million “to support the establishment of a National Framework on Early Learning and Child Care.” Such a framework is now being developed in partnership with provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments. The Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada has weighed in with its demands in this respect here. In addition to helping children, child care can also have immediate results on a government’s bottom line—indeed, research from Quebec makes clear that a well-funded child care program can pay for itself (i.e., more parents enter the labour force and the taxes they pay increase government revenue more than enough for the government to finance the cost of the child care). For a fulsome discussion of this phenomenon in Quebec, see this 2012 report; for a shorter analysis, see this December 2016 opinion piece by Pierre Fortin.
- Expanding the Working Income Tax Benefit—a measure that has appeal on both the left and right of the political spectrum—could reduce poverty. The Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) was introduced in 2007 by Canada’s federal government. A refundable tax credit, it’s intended to make precarious work more attractive to workers. This December 2016 analysis by Rob Gillezeau and Sean Speer notes “there is actually a broad political consensus” nationally in favour of expanding WITB. People and groups on the left of the political spectrum generally like it because it transfers more money into the hands of low-income households; and people on the right tend to like it because it increases labour market participation. Gillezeau and Speer note: “How broad is the cross-party Canadian consensus on the WITB? In a 2013 report on income inequality presented by the Standing Committee on Finance, the three major parties called for a further expansion to the program.” There are other more recent examples of such cross-partisan support. The federal NDP’s 2015 platform proposed a 15% increase in WITB’s value. In June 2016, the Trudeau government announced a $250 million increase to the WITB to offset increased contributions being made by low-income workers in light of the expanded Canada Pension Plan. And in November 2016, Conservative Party leadership candidate Michael Chong proposed that the WITB be doubled.
- A national pharmacare program could both: a) help a lot of people in poverty afford prescription medication, and b) prevent people with low incomes and health problems from falling into poverty. A recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argues that a universal pharmacare system would cost governments an extra $1 billion annually…yet, it would save Canadian households collectively approximately $7 billion annually. A big reason for this differential is that a nationally-administered drug plan can take advantage of the buying power of one large body to negotiate lower prices from pharmaceutical companies. In November 2015, more than 300 health professionals and academics wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, calling for such a plan—they also note that almost 90% of Canadians support adding prescription medication to Canadian medicare.
- A well-funded national housing strategy could help reduce poverty. Canada has much less social housing (per capita) than the rest of the OECD. That said, the Trudeau government’s first budget announced substantial new funding for housing and homelessness. Initiatives included: new investments for housing for First Nations, Inuit and Northern communities (approx. $370M annually for two years); the doubling of annual funding for the Investment in Affordable Housing Initiative (for 2016/17 and 2016/18 only); $100 million in new annual funding for seniors housing (also for two years); new funding for renovations of existing social housing; and $55 million in new annual funding for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, also for two years. (For more on the need for Canada to develop a national housing strategy, see this September 2016 blog post.)
- Any poverty reduction effort by the federal government should be done in partnership with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. It is abundantly clear from the data that Indigenous peoples face a considerable degree of poverty. The federal government must remain cognizant of the historical impacts of colonization and the residual impact of race-based policies on this subpopulation group. This has been underlined by contemporary reports, including the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the more recent Truth and Reconciliation Report. In particular, substantial investments should be made towards both on-reserve housing and housing for urban Aboriginal peoples. What’s more, the federal government should direct Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Canada to consult on a Nation to Nation basis in discussing the details. To read the Assembly of First Nations’ policy recommendations going into the 2015 federal election campaign, see this report.
The authors wish to thanks the following individuals for invaluable assistance with this blog post: Jordan Brennan, Gerald Chipeur, Angela Daley, Louise Gallagher, Rob Gillezeau, Ron Kneebone, Kara Layher, David Macdonald, Angella MacEwen, Michael Mendelson, Kevin Milligan, Allan Moscovitch, Robin Shaban, Richard Shillington, Joel Sinclair, Jim Stanford, John Stapleton, Kaylie Tiessen and Seth Klein. Any errors lie with the authors.
For a PDF version of the present blog post, please click here: The Federal Role in Poverty Reduction
This blog post has been republished with permission from the Calgary Homeless Foundation website.
Having ‘come from away’ I am under no illusion that Ontario, or Toronto for that matter, is the centre of the universe. That said, I’m pretty excited about working with community and government stakeholders to ramp up our efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness in Ontario. As Dr. Gaetz always says, it’s all about readiness.
So what’s happening in Ontario that makes it ready for a major shift in how we respond to youth homelessness? At this point I have to give a shout out to Alberta as the first province to have a provincial strategy to prevent and end youth homelessness. These efforts to craft and implement the strategy set the stage for critical learnings that are rippling across the country. The plan emphasizes the need for alignment across government programs and systems, and foregrounds prevention. In September 2014, the Ontario government announced its commitment to end homelessness as a part of Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. In response, the Expert Advisory Panel on Homelessness was established with a mandate to give advice on how to define and measure homelessness in Ontario, how to prioritize and set targets for ending homelessness, and how to build the evidence base and capacity to implement best practices around the province. Based on the recommendations in the resulting report, the Province set four priorities to guide action to prevent, reduce, and end homelessness, focusing on:
- Chronic homelessness
- Youth homelessness
- Aboriginal homelessness
- Homelessness following transition from provincially-funded institutions and service systems
While this was happening, communities across Ontario were recognizing the need to have targeted strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness. Two Ontario communities, Kingston and Wellington County, were part of our national pilot program, Mobilizing Local Capacity to End Youth Homelessness, and actively engaged in the critical work of crafting and implementing these strategies. Other communities and the province took notice. As we officially launched A Way Home, the Government of Ontario supported the development of our Youth Homelessness Community Planning Toolkit, with a Special Appendix for Service Managers in Ontario. This body of work helps communities go further, faster so they can get to the really difficult work of implementation, and outlines the role provincial ministries and Service Managers can play to align their efforts with those of communities. Around the same time we co-released an Ontario Policy Brief with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to help inform the provincial strategy moving forward.
Given this momentum, what do we have planned for 2017? With support from the Government of Ontario, we have launched a dedicated Ontario Youth Homelessness Planning Community of Practice that builds on more than a decade of experience in convening the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness. Free supports available to all communities include a year-long monthly webinar curriculum in partnership with OMSSA and Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to “go deep” on issues of community planning, implementation, change management, prevention and Collective Impact. We have also launched an online forum specific to community planning, moderated by expert planners. The forum is part of the Community Workspace on Homelessness, an online platform for community representatives, service providers and others working in the homelessness sector to collaborate and share information. We’re offering a free community planning newsletter that features critical resources and case studies from across the country to inform your work. We’re also building toward a province-wide Youth Homelessness Community Planning Institute to bring as many as twenty Ontario communities together to kick-start efforts to work across systems to prevent and end youth homelessness.
While these efforts are underway, our team is providing targeted supports to a number of communities that have made headway on the issue. Some communities have even adopted the A Way Home name to highlight that their efforts are part of a broader movement for change. They’re signing on to working across systems through a Collective Impact lens and doing the difficult work of investing in and shifting efforts to prevention. A Way Home Ottawa, A Way Home Lanark County, A Way Home Toronto, and A Way Home Peterborough are just the tip of the iceberg. Positive change is underfoot and it couldn’t come soon enough for young people that deserve the opportunity to achieve their full potential in life.
Stay tuned as we work alongside young people with lived experience, communities, and all orders of government to move the dial on the issue of youth homelessness.
This post is part of a monthly series that follows A Way Home's progress as we create real change on the issue of youth homelessness. On the second Wednesday of every month, join us for an update from A Way Home's Executive Director, Melanie Redman.
Over the past 30 years, the Canadian labour market has experienced the proliferation of low-wage, precarious, temporary jobs that, when coupled with the rising cost of living across the nation, make it difficult for many Canadians to have the security they need to live a fiscally stable and prosperous life. For those who do experience homelessness, getting back into the formal labour market can prove challenging. This is where the role of social enterprises comes in.blended value return on investment implies that revenue generated by the enterprise can be realized financially by investors and shareholders and also used for social good.
Although there is no single definition of a social enterprise, the following are common aspects:
Social enterprises are revenue-generating businesses, but focus on creating social good.
They create impact and improvement in the areas of social, cultural, economic or environment sectors using market-based principles.
Income/revenue generated by the business helps achieve the mission, which is the driving force of the work.
They provide meaningful employment and training for individuals who may face barriers to employment.
Not only do social enterprises work to eliminate barriers, but can also operate services to improve the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness as well, this way delivering social value through the product and service itself.
Social enterprise can be thought of as combining social and economic values to achieve success. Unlike the traditional ‘return on financial investment” used by the private sector or the “social return on investment” used by the non-profit sector, social enterprises are unique in producing blended value return on investment that is not financial or social but rather both simultaneously.
Social Enterprises & Homelessness
How, then, do the proposed benefits of social enterprises factor in the lives of those experiencing homelessness? We know that a loss of employment is one major factor, along with a host of others, that lead to an individual becoming unhoused. Moreover, experiencing homelessness itself and the stigmatization that comes along with that acts as a barrier to employability. Other barriers include whether an individual is facing mental illness that either contribute to or develop after being homeless, unreliable transportation, gaps in employment history, a lack of education and/or skills and so on, such that, employers are hesitant to extend a job offer. And of course, homelessness intersected with other forms of discrimination against substance use and addiction, disability, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, to name a few, make finding and maintaining employment even more onerous. Which is unfortunate, as many individuals experiencing homelessness would take advantage of an employment opportunity if it was made accessible to them.
From this, and as their core philosophy, social enterprises can and do play a key role in the lives of those experiencing homelessness trying to re-enter the formal labour market, as they prioritize creating opportunities for marginalized populations that other industries do not. For example:
The Empowerment Plan in Detroit employs women from shelters who produce winter coats that double as sleeping bags and have been successful in transitioning employees into housing.
Find Edmonton in Alberta provides furniture free of charge to those transitioning into housing by selling furniture to the public and reinvesting the proceeds into housing and support programs.
The Remix Project in Toronto, as well as Chicago, is a creative marketing agency providing career training and experience to marginalized youths who wish to enter into the creative industry or further their education.
Benefits of Social Enterprises
So what makes the common elements of a social enterprise beneficial for those experiencing homelessness? One study interviewed 21 different social enterprises across Ontario on their strategies in creating opportunities for individuals with mental illness that were both accommodating as well as conducive to the operation of the business. A common theme among the employers interviewed was the desire to collaborate with those who traditionally face difficulties finding employment in the formal labour market. Employers interviewed also emphasized the positive outcomes of operating a social enterprise such as community participation and, for the employees particularly, the therapeutic benefits of employment, earning an income and networking opportunities to name a few. Similar benefits have been found across varying demographics.
Social enterprise intervention training programs for youth experiencing homelessness have demonstrated many positive results. Youth have reported an improvement in life satisfaction, family contact, peer social support and showed a decrease in depressive symptoms when compared to the control group who did not receive the training. Youth employed by private sector companies implementing a social enterprise framework were able to meet their basic needs (e.g., food, housing, work attire), 67% acquired new skills and knowledge, and for many others it inspired future career goals, bolstered self-esteem, provided networking opportunities, and resulted in a desire to further their education. The Impact Construction program by Choices for Youth in St. John’s, Newfoundland, that trains and employs at-risk and homeless youth, found that of the 35 participants of their program, 70% completed the program, 9 obtained or were working towards their GED, 7 pursued post-secondary education and 6 gained full-time employment in construction.
When done right, social enterprises not only provide an inclusive workplace but also aim to provide supports beyond the workplace to meet the complex needs of employees. When asked about the importance of supports beyond the workplace, a common theme found among employers was the necessity in acknowledging the reality of maintaining a job when homeless and if facing mental illness or addiction, thereby responding with the appropriate supports. This facilitates the creation of a workplace that is tailored to the individual and their needs, not the other way around.
Choices for Youth is another good examples here, as it operates multiple social enterprises that work in tandem not only to remove employment barriers for youth but also provide services that work to create a social and environmental good. Through their programs tailored to at-risk and homeless youth, Choices for Youth provides programs spanning across crisis response, supportive housing, targeted supports and fostering independence.
Therefore, in order for social enterprises to work, they need to be tailored to the populations they are employing. For instance, our Youth Employment Toolkit is a resource that outlines considerations when employing youths who have or are experiencing homelessness:
Connect employment training with housing stability. Youth should be supported to find or maintain housing, either independently, with the same agency or through a community partner. However, there should be no risk of eviction if the youth fails to complete the training program.
Provide start-up costs including transportation, work clothing and necessary supplies/equipment.
Provide life skills training to assist the youth with development of practical skills that will serve them after the program is complete. In particular, obtaining a bank account and developing a budget, creating a resume, interview skills etc. are key for a youth employment program.
Figure out a plan to address issues of lateness and attendance. These present particular challenges for street-involved youth who may not have the same ability to adhere to a structured routine as housed youth.
Build in access to education – especially a GED – if possible. This will help improve outcomes after the program for the young person. Support a young person’s goals for future educational attainment. This could include discussing educational programs, assisting with applications and applying for scholarships.
Create opportunities for job shadowing/mentorship so that youth can see what a program looks like in a real world application.
Despite the benefits listed, social enterprises do not exist in a vacuum and of course are constantly subject and vulnerable to market pressures, which is commonly cited as a challenge of social enterprises in striking a balance between altruistic intentions and broader free market demands. For instance, research demonstrates that it is common among social enterprises to abandon social good for profit - leaving behind individuals with the most complex needs who perhaps do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ productive worker. On the other hand, for those who do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ worker, this is where the role of other supports and programs factor in to ensure that individuals who perhaps are not ‘job ready’ have the supports to transition into the private sector should they so wish.
Importantly, homelessness cannot be eradicated solely by interventions focused on individuals who have experienced homelessness and their ability to re-enter the formal work force, but rather hold the structural failures accountable for exacerbating the conditions that lead to homelessness in the first place. The shrinking of Canada’s social safety net, the substitution of manufacturing jobs with service-sector, precarious, low-wage labour and the scant availability of affordable housing all need to be addressed. Social enterprises, along with other crucial initiatives like a living wage, Housing First and mental health and/or addictions supports that incorporate ongoing personalized supports and choice are all part of the puzzle. Thus, consistent, reliable funding for social enterprises, social services, mental health supports, health care and investment in non-precarious labour not contingent upon market failures but rather the social good are all integral to a preventative framework and cannot stand separately from each other in combating homelessness.
If interested in starting a social enterprise, take a look at these:
This past summer, Stephen Gaetz and I received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for a new project, which extends some earlier work we did together when I was the COH’s post-doctoral fellow. In our early work, we were trying to identify social and structural conditions that support collaborations between communities and academic institutions. We studied the work that was happening at the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (now the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness), as well as a number of community-campus collaborations across Canada. In our new work together, we will draw on these prior research experiences as we work to better understand how engaged scholarship contributes to social change. What we mean when we say “engaged scholarship” is any strategy or activity that fosters collaboration between academic and non-academic settings. An important part of this is understanding how wider political-economic relations influence people’s collaborative efforts to move knowledge into action. We are working closely with the new COH post-doctoral fellow – Kaitlin Schwan – to carry out this work.
In this new research, our goal is to get underneath popular concepts like social innovation, collective impact, knowledge mobilization, evidence-based practice and research impact in order to find out how people actually work together to influence positive social change. This includes investigating how people use knowledge and research as part of social and political change. Unless we understand how working together contributes to social innovation and change, we won’t be able to improve the work we do or the partnerships we form, or effectively extend our collective efforts into other spheres where our work might matter. We want to understand whether and how particular activities (e.g., me writing this blog) actually contribute to changes in how people think about and do their work. In fact, we are conducting a survey on the impact of the COH and the Homeless Hub this month and would love your help! The survey asks you to share if and how the COH or the Homeless Hub has impacted your work, and how we can do so more effectively.
This research project begins with the observation that while many people are mobilizing research and knowledge for positive change, this work requires extensive social, financial, and intellectual commitments. There is seldom enough time for participants in these complex initiatives to reflect on the successes and challenges of their work. As a result, we have limited knowledge of the precise ways that our collective efforts contribute to the changes we want to see (e.g., preventing and ending homelessness).
Through this study, we want to find out:
- What are the actual things people do as part of collective efforts to solve complex social problems?
- How do the things people do shape the social changes that they are trying to make?
- How do social, institutional, political, and economic relations shape this work and influence how processes of social transformation unfold?
- How do we bring these complex social and political processes into view so that we can all learn to do the work more effectively?
To address these research questions, we will talk to people who participate in collective social change initiatives about:
- The changes they are trying to make;
- How their initiatives developed historically – for example, the things people did to create a collaborative model – and the policy, funding and social contexts that influenced this development;
- What people actually do, day-to-day, as participants in these initiatives;
- How people organize their individual work and responsibilities to support the broader aims of a collaboration;
- How they know their work is making a difference (with concrete examples); and
- How they know where the work needs to go next.
To provide additional context, we’ll be looking at the organizational, economic, institutional, and policy effects that background and shape their ability to make change. We will also pay attention to the flow of ideas, diffusion of practices, and a variety of communication techniques.
To help us understand how research-to-action processes actually work, we’ll be experimenting with a few different mapping techniques such as those used to track the movement of disease in spatial epidemiology, diffusion analysis, network analysis, and drawing on developmental evaluation work being done in the non-profit sector.
Ultimately, this research will produce a series of case studies that will serve as a demonstration project or a real-time lab. In the pilot phase, we are beginning with two cases (Exeko in Montreal and the COH in Toronto). In a face-to-face knowledge exchange between the two projects, we will be working collaboratively to articulate how the demonstration model will look, feel and function, what it will seek to convey, and how we anticipate people will use it. My hope is that we can create web-based demonstration cases that can be continuously updated and evolved as the projects themselves evolve. As we advance this aspect of the work, we will also be building a collection of tools, which we’ve found useful to capture and convey the relationship between particular activities and the changes they’ve produced or influenced. To be honest, we are making this part up as we go along – that is, we will be learning about innovation by trying to do something differently, ourselves.
To learn more about this project, please contact me at email@example.com.
News that the federal government is considering a portable housing benefit as part of its National Housing Strategy hit the wires earlier this month and was quickly picked up by news outlets.
What could this mean for families facing homelessness?
First, let’s define our terms. Governments typically provide housing assistance to tenants in three ways: through bricks-and-mortar social housing, via rent supplements paid to private and non-profit landlords to keep specific units affordable, or via housing benefits paid directly to tenants (or sometimes to their landlords) to help cover the cost of their rent. This kind of benefit is called “portable” because instead of being tied to a specific unit, it stays with the tenant even when they move.
In articles about the federal government’s plans, experts affirm that this measure could rapidly improve housing affordability for Canadian households in core housing need, until longer-term solutions such as increasing the supply of social and affordable housing come on-line. Commentators also point out that a portable housing benefit would allow low-income households to select their own housing and neighbourhood from available options in the private market, instead of living in specific social housing developments or subsidized units.
This comes as welcome news to many advocates who have been calling for a housing benefit as part of the range of necessary solutions for ending Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis. Our 2014 report on inadequate housing and risk of homelessness among families in Toronto recommended a portable benefit to help families cover housing costs. The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 and the National Housing Collaborative’s submission to the National Housing Strategy consultations, also recommend a portable national housing benefit for low-income households. Both sources propose a design similar to the National Child Benefit, which could be delivered via the tax system, and would be designed to cover most of the gap between the cost of rent and 30% of a household’s income.
Some jurisdictions in Canada already have more limited, temporary versions of a portable housing benefit. Housing First programs in municipalities across the country, for example, often include a housing allowance, along with services to assist people to find and maintain housing. And Ontario is piloting a housing benefit for women fleeing intimate partner violence. Advocates hope this can help women and families to move more quickly into safe housing in the community, reducing long shelter stays that keep shelters crowded and force them to turn away thousands of women and children each year.
But a national benefit would help to close the rent-to-income gap for low-income households across the country, for as long as needed, no matter where they live or what their circumstances – an important first step in ending homelessness and ensuring adequate housing for all.
In order to best address the needs of families facing homelessness, though, such a benefit must meet some criteria:
It must be sheltered from clawbacks by provincial social assistance programs. When the National Child Benefit was introduced, it was not protected from clawbacks. Activists fought for almost twenty years to stop Ontario from taking the benefit away from kids in the poorest families, until the Canada Child Benefit was introduced in 2016.
It must be universal and ongoing. Every household in need should have access to this benefit – otherwise it will become just another waiting list. This is the case in the U.S., where most households in need don’t receive any housing assistance, and family homelessness is rampant. In many US cities, wait lists for the national Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) are closed, and only add new names by annual lottery.
It must be ongoing, and use a formula that fills the gap between income and rent. A fixed, temporary housing allowance that provides a couple of hundred dollars per month for a year or so will not ensure housing stability for low-income families, especially in the context of a labour market that is creating precarity and working poverty for increasing numbers of workers across the country. A formula that fills the gap between income and rent will make the benefit less costly, while ensuring equal housing affordability for families in every market, from lower-cost rural areas to high-priced markets like Toronto and Vancouver.
It must not inflate rents at the low end of the private market. There is a risk that landlords will simply raise rents to absorb the extra income from a benefit, reducing its impact for families and making housing less affordable for households that don’t qualify. In the US, the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) includes a mechanism to prevent this, called Fair Market Rent - a maximum rent for units rented through the HCVP, calculated annually for each metropolitan area or county, and allowing for smaller-area calculations in high-priced, densely-populated housing markets. Provincial rent control laws also have an important role to play in preventing rent inflation.
It must be paired with local emergency supports. A benefit tied to the tax system is not responsive enough to address the unstable incomes and changing housing situations that families facing homelessness often experience. Local and provincial governments need to fill this gap, offering other income supports to prevent or alleviate homelessness and bridge families on to the national benefit.
It must be linked with initiatives to increase and repair rental supply. Rental housing is not only unaffordable – it is also scarce and deteriorating in many places. Construction of purpose-built rental housing has been at a virtual standstill in Canada’s cities for more than 25 years, meaning most apartment buildings are now in decline, poorly-maintained, and overcrowded. Vacancy rates are dangerously low in many places, and there is a desperate shortage of rental housing in the North and in many rural areas.
It must not abandon families to the private market. Research from US cities shows that families who receive housing vouchers often struggle in the private market. They may end up in deteriorating units and declining neighbourhoods, with poor access to public transit, and move frequently with little improvement in their housing situation. When families relocate from public housing into the private market with a portable benefit, rates of food insecurity and financial hardship increase.
Our research with low-income families in private-market rentals in Toronto showed that families encountered a number of housing problems in addition to unaffordable rents: dangerous and unsanitary common areas; lack of good repair in units; discrimination on the basis of race, immigrant status, gender, and other factors; housing that is not accessible to residents with disabilities; and disrespectful treatment by building managers. While financial assistance is vital, families may also require access to services and advocacy to help them find and maintain housing that is decent, safe, suitable, accessible, and stable. A national portable benefit program should be paired with strong provincial landlord-tenant laws, and local programs such as Toronto’s new landlord regulations. And many families, including those fleeing intimate partner violence, will continue to require community supports, education, and employment training in order to move towards self-sufficiency.
It must not replace social housing communities. Considering the expense of maintaining bricks-and-mortar social housing in good condition, not to mention the money and time it will take to increase this stock to meet the need, some may wonder why we don’t just dispense with social housing altogether, and simply assist low-income households to pay rent in the private market. But maintaining non-market housing as part of Canada’s housing system is important for many reasons. First, keeping land out of the market helps to hold spiraling land values and speculation in check. Secondly, in order to meet diverse housing needs, our housing system must include a broad range of accessible options: emergency shelters, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, social housing, co-ops, affordable market rental, and affordable home-ownership. Thirdly, social housing is durable in a way that portable benefits are not: it’s a lot easier for government to cancel or reduce a benefit (as recently happened in the UK) than it is to demolish a building.
Most importantly, as research from Chicago demonstrates, social housing developments are home to vibrant communities where informal networks provide material and emotional support that are vital to residents’ well-being. Even when offered the opportunity to leave neglected and distressed public housing projects, many tenants prefer to stay. Neighbourhoods are vital sites for the delivery of place-based approaches and the development of residents’ collective agency. U.S. research proves that when resources are invested in improved management, renovations, and services for residents, outcomes for tenants who remain in public housing can be better than for tenants who relocate into the private market with a housing benefit.
With more than 170,000 households on the affordable housing waiting list in Ontario, and Toronto family shelters often at 100% capacity, governments at all levels must move quickly to provide desperately-needed affordable housing options. A national portable housing benefit will be an important first step – as long as it’s done right.
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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.