Emma Woolley, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
In our latest website survey, Lara .C. asked: How can we change Canada’s institutions (e.g. tax code, zoning laws) to incentivize building low-end rental market housing?
This is a great question Lara, and certainly one many researchers, activists and advocates have been asking for decades. I am constantly saying that what we really need (among other things) is more affordable housing, but determining how we get that housing is a more difficult task. Laws and regulations are different depending on which municipality, province and/or territory we’re discussing, so I’ll answer this question a bit more broadly.
Across Canada and elsewhere, most housing exists in the private ownership market. Housing is treated like a lucrative business, not a human right. As such, private interests control prices and availability, with small groups of people controlling most owned property: individual/family buyers, development companies and professional property owners/managers. Private ownership and corporate interests that prioritize profit complicate our efforts to create more affordable housing.
Due to increasing affordability problems with owning housing, many people continue to rent (about half of residents in Toronto and Vancouver). Regardless of whether a person rents or owns, housing is a basic human need and social determinant of health, so we need to increase its supply and affordability.
How to increase the stock of affordable housing
In the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report, our writers made a few strategic recommendations that include a variety of solutions:
1. “A new federal, provincial and territorial affordable housing framework agreement.
2. Investments to target chronically and episodically homeless people.
3. Direct investment in affordable housing programs.
4. A housing benefit – a new program to assist those who face a severe affordability problem in their current accommodation.
5. Create an affordable housing tax credit.
6. Review and expand investment in Aboriginal housing both on and off reserve.”
As the report also states, every $10 spent on affordable housing would actually save $21.72 in health care, supports and more (pictured right). Yet we have not made these investments. As Londerville and Steele (2014) point out in Housing Policy Targeting Homelessness, low federal government spending on housing has had severe consequences:
Not surprisingly, these years of low spending have seen high levels of extreme affordability problems – close to 60 percent of renters in 2011 with an income at about the minimum-wage level paid more than half their income in rent, in Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver, and an even highly percentage did so in Calgary and Edmonton. Social housing waiting lists have ballooned and the number of homeless persons on our streets has risen. Declining federal spending has also burdened provinces and municipalities. These levels of government have borne almost all the cost of providing shelters for the homeless, as well as programs providing targeted housing support for tens of thousands.
Londerville and Steele (2014) make several detailed recommendations to increase housing supply, a majority of which are tax incentives (for specifics, I recommend reading the whole report):
⦁ “A Rent Supplement (RS) program – deep subsidies for the chronic and episodically homeless.
⦁ A bundle of tax changes aimed at reviving the virtually moribund construction of multi-unit rental buildings in some of our cities including Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, and at preserving the existing multi-unit stock. These tax measures are aimed at ensuring greater availability of housing for RS and at providing relative security of tenure.
⦁ Tax proposals aimed at increasing the stock of affordable multiunit rental buildings.
⦁ A housing benefit aimed at assisting the precariously housed who have no wish to move but have an affordability problem.
⦁ Funding to insure the continuing viability of existing social housing and the continuation of programs launched in recent years.”
Zoning changes can also contribute to the affordable housing stock, but only if the new housing is controlled for affordability and preservation. Inclusionary zoning, which considers the needs of moderate to low-income earners, has had positive outcomes in American cities. A CPRN report examined the potential impact of inclusionary zoning in Toronto, and noted that “Generally, the needs of the lowest income groups have not been well addressed by inclusionary programs….but has worked well to produce workforce housing.” So while zoning and tax incentives are important, we must also turn our attention to other potential solutions.
Unique partnerships and community efforts can also have a big impact. One great example is in Toronto, where housing built for Pan-Am athletes is being converted into 253 affordable rentals by non-profits Fred Victor and Wigwamen Community Housing Inc. (along with 100 units available to buy at affordable prices). The sale and conversion have been quite costly, prompting the organizations to launch a public campaign – currently at $2.3 million of their $3 million goal – but has ultimately been successful. Such a project required cooperation from many different areas: government, private developers, non-profit organizations and lobbyists. Housing is a complex necessity that requires this level of organization and creativity.
The importance of activism
With all of these ideas in mind, we must remember to try to turn them into action. Clearly, we have a lot of ideas about the kinds of tax and other incentives that should be implemented, but they need to be brought to local decision-makers and government bodies. Without interest shown and pressure on the issue of homelessness, all these ideas will remain just that.
Here’s some things we can all do to encourage movement on initiatives. This list is by no means exhaustive, it’s just a start!
⦁ Find like-minded people and get together to discuss the priorities in your community and what you want to see change
⦁ Attend meetings of local housing organizations and support their initiatives
⦁ Spread information: the more people know about housing and what we can do to improve it, the better
⦁ Have representatives from your group contact local councilors and MPs, encouraging them to make affordable housing a priority with specific prioritized incentives
⦁ Question developers of new buildings on what percentage of units will be family appropriate, mixed-use and offered at affordable rates
This post is part of our Friday “Ask the Hub” blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.
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.