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How Canada Is Starting to Approach Housing as a Human Right

The ruling liberal government has recently introduced a piece of legislation that points to its desire to treat housing as a right for all citizens.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Housing activists in Canada have long decried the hypocrisy in their nation's rhetorical commitment to housing as a human right while its affordable housing supply has shrunk and fallen into disrepair. Canada, like most other countries in the world, ratified an international covenant that guarantees the right to housing. But over the past few years, powerful moves by housing activists, a worsening housing crisis in big cities and small towns alike, and a series of negative reviews by the United Nation's special rapporteur on adequate housing have made the problem too big to ignore.

In response, the ruling liberal government released a new national housing strategy, which commits $40 billion CAD to a broad menu of housing interventions over the next decade. The plan is notable not only for the significant amount of resources committed, but also for overtly declaring that it will approach housing as a human right—or at least point its policy in that direction.

The housing strategy is described as a first step in a larger effort to "progressively implement the right of every Canadian to access adequate housing," in accordance with the U.N. Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other international treaties.

Canada's announcement stands in stark contrast to its neighbor to the south. Unlike virtually every other developed nation, the United States has not ratified the U.N. Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and it is expected to roll back many affordable housing programs with the forthcoming Republican tax bill.

"Overall, the commitment to a sustained, long-term strategy is fantastic," said Alina Turner, a homelessness advocate and non-profit consultant based in Calgary. She approached the news with cautious optimism, given Canada's previous theoretical commitment to treat housing as a human right. "We're excited to see that this was noted, because it was almost like Canada had ignored that responsibility."

The strategy is designed to make a significant dent in Canada's housing challenges. Of Canada's 1.7 million households currently in "housing need," living in housing that is either inadequate or unaffordable, over 500,000 will be upgraded to better conditions. Hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units will be built or renovated, and hundreds of thousands more will remain affordable. The plan also expands funding for housing vouchers for low-income people and various homelessness initiatives.

The strategy places particular emphasis on the needs of marginalized groups. "They knew they couldn't address everything, so what this strategy is about is really focusing on the most disadvantaged in the housing market," said Penny Gurstein, a professor of social policy at the University of British Columbia.

Currently, women face a disproportionate burden in Canada's housing market: 55 percent of households in core housing need are female-led, as are 63 percent of households in subsidized housing, according to the strategy. And, each night, 300 women and children are turned away from domestic violence shelters in Canada. In response to these conditions, 25 percent of the strategy's funds are directed toward programs that specifically benefit women, girls, and their families. Other groups that receive particular attention are the elderly, youth, and immigrants and refugees.

"Much of the strategy is geared toward individuals and families who are facing the greatest need ... so from that perspective there is a strong tie-in to poverty reduction," said Debbie Stewart, the director of housing needs for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and an author of the strategy.

Housing has become more of a hot-button issue in Canada in recent years, as housing prices continue to increase across the country, particularly in cities. "It was really the municipalities that were pushing for new policies," Gurstein said. Cities are "where the issues are, but they have the least amount of resources to address them. They've seen the rise of homelessness, they've seen the rise of speculative markets, they've seen the rise in 'renovictions.'"

While groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities made the case for better housing policy as an economic imperative, grassroots groups like the Right to Housing Coalition framed the conversation in terms of human rights. In 2014, the latter group sued the government over the legal right to housing, which resulted in a lower court deciding that compliance with international treaties was not the role of the legal system. The suit came in the midst of a series of critical reviews by the U.N.'s special rapporteur on adequate housing, which Gurstein described as "scathing." Also in 2014, a Canadian, Leilani Farha, was appointed to this position, creating added pressure for the country to live up to its stated commitments on housing.

The government was ultimately responsive to these appeals, referring prominently to its human rights commitments in the new strategy.

However, the fact that Canada evaded these commitments for so many decades leaves room for some skepticism about what will actually be achieved. "Canada is already a signatory on international legislation that says we respect housing as a human right ... so just because something is in legislation doesn't mean it's being practiced," Turner said.

Turner questions whether the government's financial commitments are realistic. For instance, about $9 billion CAD, nearly a quarter of the strategy's total of $40 billion, is expected to come from provincial and territorial cost matching, which could be an unreasonable expectation for more impoverished regions.

Turner also worries that the government's plan to expand the Housing Benefit program, which is comparable to Section 8 housing vouchers in the U.S., might trade national benefits for local ones, rather than adding to the net benefits households receive. "Does that mean the people who are getting the national housing benefit are going to lose their social assistance, because that's being clawed back provincially?" Turner asked. The strategy does not say how its investments will translate to some of the outcome-driven goals, like a 50 percent reduction in homelessness, or the renovation of 300,000 subsidized units. "A lot of my questions are to do with the details behind some of the numbers," Turner said.

Notably, the national housing strategy does not significantly address Indigenous populations, whose housing needs are "much higher than the general population," Stewart said. Instead, the government is working to co-develop specially tailored housing strategies for Canada's three Indigenous sub-groups, the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, based on their unique needs.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding its execution, the strategy is at least a recognition that Canada's housing policies "were really not working," Gurstein said. "They've recognized that, in a Western democratic nation, to have this many issues around housing is a national crisis."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.