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The right to affordable housing

In recent municipal elections in Toronto and Vancouver, the lack of affordable housing was one of the top issues that most concerned voters. In Vancouver, pundits attributed the defeat of the governing municipal party, Vision,  to its inability to find a solution to the affordable housing crisis. In Toronto, re-elected Mayor John Tory declared he wanted to focus on affordable housing as a top priority for the first 100 days of his second term.

It is no surprise that the cost of basic housing has become an issue. Vancouver’s average house price is over $1.1 million; Toronto over $800,000. Average house prices are rising rapidly in many other communities right across the country, along with prices for rental accommodations. In Vancouver the average rent  for a one-bedroom apartment is over $2,000; over $3,150 for a two-bedroom. The vacancy rate has remained below 1% for many years, and almost half of all renters spend more than 30% of their income on rent. The story in Toronto is just about the same.

The federal government’s recently announced National Housing Strategy (NHS) might eventually have some impact on the supply of affordable housing, but most housing activists says it does not go far enough. The commitment of 100,000 units sounds large but it is nation-wide, over a period of 10 years and assumes provincial contributions. The specific federal commitment of 60,000 units over ten years to be financed through a National Housing Co-Investment Fund  would work out to only about 790 new units a year for all of British Columbia – far less than what is needed to meaningfully address the desperate lack of affordable housing there alone.

Housing advocates contend that affordable housing should be considered a human right, if we’re really going to commit to solving the problem. A rights-based approach to housing  would inevitably mean a more determined fiscal commitment to build affordable housing and to provide income supports. Over a year ago, Prime Minister Trudeau stated his government recognized “housing rights are human rights”, and Canada is a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where the right to housing is subsumed under Article 25. Yet, despite the Prime Minister’s words and our UN signature,  the federal Liberals recently sided with the Conservatives in voting down a NDP motion that the House of Commons should “recognize the right of housing as a human right”.

A rights-base approach to affordable housing – along with universal childcare, universal pharmacare and pay equity –  should be part of the formula if we are serious about challenging inequality in Canada.

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