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Why a National Housing Strategy must focus on those with low income


If you find yourself agreeing with the Conservative opposition’s critique that the Liberals’ new National Housing Strategy doesn’t do enough for the “middle class”(an arbitrary category), you may be unaware of the depth of income inequality and the state of housing affordability in Canada.

Let’s be clear - income inequality is growing in Canada, and those with lower incomes are most at risk for insecure housing and/or at becoming homeless. It is right that they should be at the centre of the new National Housing Strategy. Over the last five years, the Broadbent Institute has been instrumental in developing and publishing original research and data — adding to the overwhelming amount of evidence that income inequality is on the rise in Canada.

Key to addressing income inequality is ensuring that no one is denied an adequate place to call home, simply because they can’t afford it. Yet, in cities across Canada, thousands, and in some cities — hundred of thousands -  are on a waitlist for subsidized housing, while approximately 235,000 people are homeless every night. A National Housing Strategy is long overdue. But the plan currently being framed as a first and gigantic leap of its kind, is in actuality a restoration of the federal government’s longstanding - and too long abandoned - role in housing. The federal government’s last national housing strategy was put forward in 1993. In 1996, the then Liberal government opted to download the responsibility of housing to provincial and territorial governments. Since then, municipalities such as Toronto have had to either front the costs of building and maintaining social housing, and/or rely on their provincial government to provide them with adequate funding.

Housing costs in Metro Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area have since steadily increased, squeezing out middle-income earners from the buyers market, and causing a strain on those with lower incomes in the rental sector. This is all occurring while social housing stock in cities like Montreal and Toronto are crumbling — forcing the shutdown of hundreds of units in need of capital repairs in Toronto alone.

The correlation between income and housing - or lack thereof - is one that requires an unabashed class, as well as race and gender, analysis. A survey conducted by the Broadbent Institute and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Canada in 2014, found that Canadians not only underestimate the extent of the wealth gap in Canada, but are keenly aware of the income gap between the country’s rich and poor. These findings make sense. Income disparities are far easier to observe in cities across Canada. The demographic compositions of neighbourhoods in Canadian cities are key indicators of this.

In Toronto, as in other big cities, low-income neighbourhoods are highly racialized. They are often on the outer edges of the city where transit is under-resourced, or in social housing units that are continuously neglected. Indigenous communities across the country, in both rural and urban settings, face a unique housing crisis, while women and children fleeing abuse require specific housing protections.

The conclusion of countless studies on income inequality are clear: the rich are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer. When framed in the context of housing affordability and homelessness, the rising cost of living in cities across Canada is felt most acutely by those with low to no income. A national housing strategy that acknowledges housing is a human right should be reflecting the realities of the country’s most vulnerable.  

A report published in 2015 by the Broadbent Institute’s Senior Policy Advisor, Andrew Jackson, asks “How then can we return to an era of shared prosperity?” A national housing strategy is a path forward to achieving this. But with a two year wait until the bulk of the funding kicks in, it still falls short by leaving many without the housing supports they need in the interim — a major downfall of the strategy. Yet, the focus on those with low-incomes should be commended.

Brittany Andrew-Amofah is the Policy and Research Manager at the Broadbent Institute.