Bill C-400: An opportunity lost

by Clark Brownlee and Donna Minkus

It is disappointing that Bill C-400, the private member’s bill attempting to introduce a national housing strategy in Canada, has been defeated. While its demise was not unexpected it was interesting that Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a supposed “non-partisan” corporation, came out with an estimate of the cost of a national housing strategy.

In a news release just prior to the vote, CHMC estimated a national housing strategy would carry a price tag of $5.5 billion per year in rent subsidies. Leaving aside the motives of the government and CMHC for the timing of this release, it raises an important question about the cost of fixing a housing problem that has been allowed to fester and grow for decades.

We need to face the fact that housing is expensive to build, expensive to maintain and expensive to subsidise.  So $5.5 is not an unreasonable estimate, in fact it may be too low.  The press release goes on to list the spending that the Federal Government has been investing in a variety of programs over the past four years. What is missing in the report is an assessment of the effectiveness of these expenditures. It also fails to point out that virtually everything listed in the CMHC media release are programs and funding that have either already been terminated, are scheduled to be terminated in 2014, or are being rapidly wound down as part of the government’s ‘step-out’ of its social housing obligations.

Also absent is any acknowledgement of the millions of dollars being saved by not maintaining the operating grants that are attached to the expiring mortgages on social housing or the billions of dollars of profits that CMHC makes selling mortgage insurance.  These are profits that used to be reinvested in affordable housing projects that are now turned over to federal general revenues.  Housing advocates contend that CMHC could easily provide more than $500 million per year to housing programs in Canada, without any further draw on the federal treasury.

For the past two decades, the federal government has been trying to extricate itself from social housing and each year its cuts in spending for federally assisted housing units continue to grow.    According to CMHC’s own reports, all funding for affordable housing investment will be terminated in 2014, as will the Homeless Partnering Strategy. By 2016, federal government plans to decrease its support for social housing by 16 per cent, or 98,000 affordable housing units. Planned spending on aboriginal housing will be cut by 50 per cent.  The irony in these cuts is that all the research shows that it is much more expensive to deal with the negative results of homelessness and poor housing than it is to house people adequately.

Bill C-400, had it been passed, simply called on the Federal Government to resume a leadership role in calling the provinces, territories, First Nations, civil societies, non-profits and the private sector together to formulate and start to implement a national housing strategy.  The bill did not presume which level of government and which sectors would assume how much responsibility for the plan, but those in governments know that sitting down with the Feds usually means expecting them to ante up with something more.  This is clearly not what the current government has in mind.

R2H logoClark Brownlee and Donna Minkus are active members of Right to Housing, a coalition that works to address the current housing crisis and the chronic need for social housing.