In 2008, Alberta committed to ending chronic homelessness through a Housing First approach. Developed in New York City, Housing First emphasizes that housing is the first need for someone experiencing homelessness. Clients are offered permanent housing in the community, followed by any services they may need. As Housing First has spread internationally, it has been adapted to local contexts. It is no longer a single model for addressing homelessness, but a flexible approach to re-housing people, and supporting them to remain housed. To learn more about the adaptability of Housing First, we examined how it is practiced in Alberta.
Alberta’s housing market can be challenging, especially during economic booms. Housing costs rise faster than people’s incomes, and the availability of rental units falls. These conditions contribute to new cases of homelessness. They also create challenges for Housing First agencies, which rely on private market apartments to house clients.
Using private apartments in Housing First has several advantages. First, it allows clients to choose between a range of units in different neighbourhoods. Client choice is a key principle of Housing First, because it empowers individuals and helps them retain housing. Second, clients can be housed in neighbourhoods throughout the city, and not concentrated in particular areas. The goal here is to encourage social inclusion and increase clients’ access to economic and recreational opportunities.
When we conducted our study in 2014-15, Housing First agencies in Calgary and Edmonton struggled to find apartments for their clients. Availability was low, with vacancy rates around 1.5%. Rents were high, with the average bachelor suite costing over $900/month in Calgary and almost $850/month in Edmonton.
For Housing First clients receiving provincial social assistance, these rents were completely out of reach. Single adults, for example, received a standard ‘shelter amount’ of just $323 per month (30% of their total payment). Participants from Housing First agencies noted:
“I haven’t even found a room rental for $323”
“For people who are on income support … affordable housing [is] not affordable enough. $600 is still twice too much. $900 is three times too much.”
Subsidies were required to make up the difference between clients’ contributions (30% of their total monthly income) and rental costs in the private market. These were available from the province, but the funding stream was time-limited and securing subsides was often a source of stress and uncertainty.
In this difficult context, Housing First agencies developed new approaches to securing housing:
- Clients were encouraged to “take whatever you can get.” This often meant accepting the first apartment they were shown;
- Agencies were forced to lower their expectations around housing quality, including by working with “slumlords” and taking apartments in “bad areas of town”;
- Agencies devoted more resources to maintaining relationships with landlords. They created new positions such as “landlord liaison” and “housing locator”; and
- Both agencies and clients experienced more pressure to “graduate.” Existing clients needed to be moved out of programs, to make space for those who were homeless.
These adaptations were necessary to make Housing First ‘work’ in Alberta, but also challenged key principles of the Housing First approach:
- Providing clients with meaningful choice in housing became very difficult. In many instances, the only affordable apartments were poor-quality or located in undesirable neighbourhoods, and even these needed to be secured quickly. Agencies worked hard on landlord relations, but there were simply too few affordable apartments available; and
- The idea of Housing First as an open-ended commitment, available for as long as clients required, gave way to the notion of time-limited support. There was an increasing emphasis on “graduation”. Even with this focus, waiting times increased – up to two years in some cases – undermining the ability of programs to re-house people quickly.
These findings led us to question the reliance of Housing First on market apartments, as high rents and low supply can put those apartments out of reach in some contexts. An alternative approach is to increase agencies’ use of non-market housing options. These include social housing for clients who can live independently, and permanent supportive housing for those with higher needs. Here, follow through on the National Housing Strategy will be critical. The ability of Housing First to end chronic homelessness will be strengthened by promised investments in renewing and expanding non-market housing, while the new Canada Housing Benefit will help to address affordability challenges.
This blog is based on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. For full access to the journal articles linked to above, please email damian.collins[at]ualberta.ca