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.