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Canada's housing crisis needs answers — but first we need to ask the right questions
The struggle to match housing costs to incomes affects everyone in Canada. It impacts not only people who struggle to afford a place to live, but health care, education, the economy and quality of life in general.
Housing is a critical piece of our social infrastructure. It is literally the platform on which most other aspects of social life depend.
For growing numbers who either don’t have a home at all, or who must spend large proportions of their incomes on shelter — the normal affordability benchmark says shelter costs (rent/mortgage plus taxes plus utilities) should not exceed 30 per cent — the hardships are real.
The National Housing Strategy is a 10-year plan designed to tackle some of these issues, but to execute the strategy, Canada needs to build its research capacity.
We need more research that’s better suited to current challenges, and more research capacity to understand the challenges, inform housing providers and policy-makers to provide solutions and evaluate those solutions.
For those of modest income, affordability problems can include simply finding a decent place to live and having to give up other necessities such as food, clothing and transportation to keep it.
About 68 per cent of Canadians own their homes, but whether that is sustainable is an open question as prices outstrip incomes.
If Canadians can’t buy homes, they will need to rent, but our rental sector can’t accommodate everyone who is being priced out. We need to retain existing affordable housing in the market and to build more rental housing that is affordable to those in the greatest need.
Even people who are earning a good income are increasingly facing tough choices with serious consequences. When high housing costs keep Canadians from buying a couch or medications or taking a vacation, it affects the economy and individual well-being.
From renovictions to neglect
The news is filled with stories of “renoviction”: landlords using unsavoury tactics to get lower-paying tenants to leave, such as neglecting maintenance, harassment or offering cash bonuses in the thousands of dollars, which can be attractive to people of limited income, but leave them with nowhere to go.
Our aging population lacks sufficient alternatives when health and mobility issues make it impossible for them to live independently at home. They can end up in the overburdened long-term care system when other forms of housing and support would be preferable and cheaper. In many cases, people use long-term care not because it’s the best housing option, but because it’s the only housing option.
Housing challenges are not experienced equally. To be successful, housing solutions need redress the inequities faced by people living on low incomes, people from racialized groups, Indigenous people, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities and others.
These issues are challenging, but not hopeless. They can be resolved with levers such as rental assistance and mortgage rules, by creating more social housing and setting priorities around the needs of citizens.
A low research capacity
Canada’s housing research capacity is low compared to other countries and relative to the urgency of the problem. Australia, the United Kingdom and many European countries allocate far more for housing research.
The first step is understanding the picture in all its complexity, so governments can have the tools to make the best choices. A new federal initiative is designed to bridge the gap.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is investing nearly $14 million in housing research under the National Housing Strategy’s Collaborative Housing Research Network.
The initiative includes six major research groups across the country, including the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative. Each will address a different aspect of the problem, from housing in the north, to housing for older people, to boosting the community housing sector, to addressing housing supply, to innovative practices in affordable housing.
This will generate much-needed research to address such critical questions as: What is happening to the supply of naturally occurring affordable housing? Where can newcomers to Canada afford to live? Who is most affected by evictions, and is our knowledge affected by under-reporting? Can governments avoid costs by spending more on housing and living supports and less on problems caused by homelessness?
Policymakers need current, contextual and relevant evidence to understand Canada’s housing challenges, and to design the most effective solutions.