New federal government: opportunity to end crisis of poor housing

By Josh Brandon

For Winnipeg residents with low incomes, the lack of affordable quality housing is a crisis. According to the 2011 National Housing Survey, 34,000 Winnipeg renters paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent, while thousands more lived in housing that was overcrowded or in poor condition.

Poor housing has impacts on their health, education and employment. For newcomers or for Indigenous Canadians coming from remote communities, poor housing can negatively affect their ability to settle and integrate into Winnipeg. For far too many single adults on low incomes, overcrowded and deteriorating accommodations in single room occupancy (SRO) hotels or rooming houses are their only housing options. Even such housing that is available risks being lost to conversions to condos or the wrecking ball. Bed bugs keep many residents of poor housing from sound sleep. Conflicts with landlords leave tenants insecure in their homes and in their rights.

The problem of poor housing is rarely reflected in our public discourse on housing. For the majority of Canadians, especially for Canadians with the income to maintain and own their own homes, the private housing market provides choice and quality as good as anywhere else in the world. The problem of poor housing disproportionately affects certain populations, especially Indigenous Canadians, newcomers, single parents, and individuals living alone. In 2011, more than one in four Indigenous Manitobans were in overcrowded housing, compared to just 10 per cent of the total population. Many newcomers must rely on support of their families and communities to pay rent. It has been too easy for political leaders to ignore these groups and their needs in their parties’ narrow focus on the vote fertile terrain of the middle class. However each of these populations have complex specific housing needs that the private market does not and is not able to address. Public policy and investment is necessary to meet their needs.

Availability of public social housing is insufficient in Manitoba. Although Manitoba Housing does not keep official waiting lists, over three thousand are listed on eligibility lists for Winnipeg alone. Many who are lucky enough to get in, feel that they have won a lottery by obtaining subsidized housing. The provincial government in Manitoba has made welcome changes in recent years. Since 2009, 2000 units of social, rent geared to income housing have been built. Though not enough to meet demand, these units provide quality secure housing options for many residents. Another positive development is the change to the Rent Assist program that will increase accommodation subsidies for both recipients of the Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) program and for low income Manitobans not on EIA.
Unfortunately, since the 1990’s, the federal government has stepped away from involvement in the provision of public housing. Previously, Canada was a world leader in providing social housing, building over 600,000 units between the 1960’s and 1980’s. These investments have not only kept pace with growing demand, but now are at risk by the scheduled phase out of supports of individual housing projects over the next twenty years.

Poor housing is a problem for all Canadians. From a purely economic point of view, it makes no sense to bar residents from access to quality housing. Investing in social housing produces tangible benefits in education, improved health and in reductions in crime. For every 100 households kept out of homelessness by investments in social housing, society realizes benefits of close to $3 million over the cost of the housing provided in savings. Moreover, without quality housing, participation in the economy, as either workers or taxpayers is limited. More significant than these financial gains, a commitment to housing is needed to heal the social, racial and class divides that scar our city.

Housing is a universal human right and a social obligation. In the 2015 federal election, for the first time in years, the topic of housing was seriously addressed by several of the competing parties. The commitments made by Prime Minister elect, Justin Trudeau to make investing in affordable housing a major priority of his $20 billion infrastructure program presents a significant opportunity for housing advocates to achieve progress and to finally see Canada join the ranks of other developed economies by implementing strong national housing policy.

Nonetheless, housing advocates cannot, and will not sit by patiently waiting for change. Even in the absence of federal leadership, progress has already been made at the local level. Strong community based organizations and institutions have developed to address the needs of newcomer, Indigenous and neighbourhood communities in the Inner City and across Winnipeg. These provide solid ground on which to build progressive solutions to the poor housing crisis.

Experience in each case has shown that two key ingredients have been essential for achieving positive results. Firstly, it is necessary to have a partner in government willing to listen and invest in housing. But equally important, activism at a local level is needed to mobilize knowledge and initiative to propose and develop project to meet the needs of residents. Now, with a potential partner at the federal level, the possibility for progress exists, but housing activists must redouble their efforts to put end poor housing in Winnipeg and across Canada.

Josh Brandon is a Community Animator at the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, co-editor of Poor Housing: A Silent Crisis and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba Research Associate.