Over the past decade, several plans to address the affordable housing and homelessness crisis in Canada have been implemented by governments at all levels. Although initiatives like the National Housing Strategy, Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy and the Rapid Housing Initiative are steps in the right direction, it’s clear there is still work to be done. A report by the City of Toronto argues that government policy and funding responses have largely been “more reactive than proactive, limited in scale and slow to roll-out”. COVID-19 has heightened the housing and homelessness crisis and made louder the cries of advocates and experts who say homelessness is a solvable crisis, it just takes political will. 

In a recent staff presentation by John Ecker, COH’s Director of Research and Evaluation and Research Manager at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto, titled “Lessons Learned From the Field”, he identified twelve key considerations that governments across Canada should take into account when developing plans to prevent and end homelessness. 

1. Disproportionate rates of homelessness among Indigenous, Black and Racialized individuals need to be addressed.

Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous Peoples (First Nation, Inuit, and Métis) experience structural racism perpetuated by the impact of colonialism, residential schools, the 60s Scoop, and other harmful policies. As a result, they are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and housing insecurity. This is coupled with the underfunding of services for Indigenous individuals and families. To understand what issues are most important to Indigenous communities, priorities regarding Indigenous homelessness must be developed in consultation with Indigenous Community Entities and Indigenous Community Advisory Boards

Black and Racialized Communities
For Black and racialized communities, structural and systemic racism limit opportunities for housing, education and employment, which can result in an increased risk of experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, the lack of race-based data in the Canadian homelessness sector limits our understanding of homelessness among Black and racialized individuals. This is why we must take an intersectional approach to policy that underscores the need for representation of Black and racialized communities at all levels of homeless-serving systems. 

 2. The intersection of domestic violence and homelessness needs to be addressed.

Laws and legislation have historically put the onus on victims of domestic violence to flee situations, rather than keeping them in their housing. More resources need to be dedicated to creating more permanent housing solutions for survivors. Partnerships between sectors are also very important. The Rogers Home and Avdell Home by Covenant House are examples of programs that provide permanent housing solutions for victims in collaboration with multiple community partners in related sectors to provide health care, legal support, mental health support, and future-oriented education and job training. 

3. Housing affordability metrics need to be reviewed.

In many cities, affordable rental housing is defined in relation to market rent. However, most experts agree that housing affordability should be based on household income. In Canada, around the 1980s, a benchmark of 30% of a household’s before-tax income emerged as the standard for what is considered affordable housing, but this benchmark may not accurately reflect the economic realities of households. Rental affordability continues to pose a challenge across the country, with affordability further deteriorating since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic

4. Housing adequacy needs to be addressed when discussing affordable housing.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines acceptable housing as housing that is adequate, affordable, and suitable. The word adequate in this definition refers to housing that does not require any significant repairs. Affordable, as discussed above, refers to the cost of housing being less than 30% of one’s income. Finally, suitable housing refers to housing that has enough bedrooms for the size of the household. The adverse health impacts of overcrowded housing have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic with the number of cases being four times higher in areas of Toronto with high levels of overcrowding, demonstrating the need for more suitable housing. 

5. Rent control measures need to be applied.

Rent control refers to the capping of the amount of rent that can be charged. Rent control measures can ensure that tenants are protected from dramatic increases in their rent. Rent control practices vary across Canada. For example, in Ontario, new buildings, additions to existing buildings and most new basement apartments that are occupied for the first time for residential purposes after November 15, 2018, are exempt from rent control. From a housing development perspective, it is thought that by capping rental prices, developers have less incentive to build properties, and landlords have less motivation to maintain the quality of units since there is less of a financial motive to attract tenants. Alternatively, the disincentivizing of private development that can result from rent control can allow municipal governments to buy land at a much-reduced price. This occurred in Vienna, Austria where the bulk of housing stock is now managed by co-ops or non-profits and dedicated to moderate-income workers and their families

6. Housing benefits should be expanded.

Housing benefits are non-repayable monthly financial benefits provided to make rental housing more affordable. There are different combinations of federal and regional benefits that can be accessed depending on the location. The Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit is one such program established under the National Housing Strategy through a CMHC-Ontario Bilateral Agreement. However, many of these types of benefits are often absorbed into the private market rather than the non-profit housing sector. There also needs to be more of an effort to structure and deliver housing benefits so that they do not result in clawbacks of other income assistance measures.  

7. Income assistance rates should be increased.

Income assistance is an important consideration for increasing housing affordability in Canada. Average rent is not affordable for a single average wage earner without another source of income, even if they work full time. Across Canada, the average hourly wage that a full-time worker must make to be able to rent an average two-bedroom apartment with no more than 30% of their income is $22.40/hr. Highlighting the need for income support, in Ontario, at minimum wage, one would have to work 78 hours/week to afford the average two-bedroom apartment. In BC, one would have to work 105 hours/week at minimum wage to be able to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment

8. Zoning rules should be changed to allow for more affordable housing. 

Inclusionary zoning is a policy that allows municipalities to secure the provision of affordable housing as part of the development approval process for residential units. This type of policy supports households that earn too much to be eligible for social housing but not enough to be able to afford market rent. However, there is a need to ensure that affordability is not time-restricted. 

Single-family housing zoning is a tool that is used to restrict density in neighbourhoods. It is also thought to have contributed to worsening affordability by reducing housing supply and making access to high-opportunity neighbourhoods restrictive to low-income households and therefore hindering inclusion.

9. More permanent supportive housing is needed that adheres to the Housing First model.

In Finland, an evaluation of their approaches to homelessness found that emergency shelters were not working. The country chose to switch to a Housing First approach, redeveloping emergency shelters into permanent supportive housing buildings. In 2008, there were 552 supportive housing units and 558 shelter units and 8 years later, in 2016, there were 1,309 supportive housing units and 52 shelter units. The federal government, municipal governments, private companies, and non-governmental agencies all guided housing development with this strategy in mind. 

10. Community-based Housing Trust Funds should be enhanced.

There are a couple of tools that can be used to promote, fund, and support this Housing First strategy and develop affordable housing. One of these tools is the creation of Housing Trust Funds. Housing Trust Funds can be established by elected government bodies when a source or sources of public revenue are dedicated, by ordinance of the law, to a distinct fund to provide affordable housing. Ideally, funds are transferred automatically each year without going through the budget process. Another tool that elected government bodies can establish is Community Land Trusts, which are an alternative land ownership and management strategy to protect community space and its affordability. This removes a piece of land from the speculative real estate market and gentrification pressures and puts it in the control of the Trust in perpetuity for the community purpose. 

11. There are opportunities for revenue generation to increase funding for affordable housing.

In terms of supporting affordable housing, revenue generation for governments refers to taxation strategies that combat the financialization of housing. Taxation on short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs, is one application of this that is becoming more and more popular across North America. Taxation of luxury homes can be another way of generating revenue for affordable housing. Another method is progressive property taxation, which is a surtax based on a property’s assessed value, applied on top of regular property taxes. Restaurant taxes have also been used to help address homelessness and support affordable housing in places like Miami. Other cities, such as Vancouver, have a Vacant Home Tax which taxes property owners on properties that are not their principal residence or that are not being rented for an extended period. One critique of this approach is that it often results in only high-end properties being made available for rent. 

12. Through research and evaluation, we know that specific interventions work.

Finally, additional progressive interventions to prevent homelessness and increase affordable housing must also be considered. Eviction prevention programs and Housing First are just some of the proven strategies. Most importantly, in conjunction with any program or strategy, the voice and choice of people experiencing or at risk of homelessness are critical to ensuring the proper and effective delivery of such services.