Canada needs a National Right to Housing Strategy

November 22, 2022 – Canadian Human Rights Commission – Ottawa, Ontario

On National Housing Day, Marie-Josée Houle, the Federal Housing Advocate, issues the following statement:

This month marks five years since the federal government released its 10-year, $72 billion National Housing Strategy in 2017 to reverse Canada's housing and homelessness crisis.

As we approach its halfway point, the Auditor General's report last week adds to the growing evidence that the Strategy is far behind on its goals of halving core housing need and eliminating homelessness by 2030, and it is not meeting the needs of Indigenous peoples and disadvantaged groups.

The world is a very different place than it was when the Strategy was introduced. We have experienced an unprecedented pandemic and resulting economic crisis that has exposed the fragility of Canada's housing system. The number of people falling through the tattered safety net has grown. Those facing disadvantage are falling further behind. The number of people experiencing homelessness who are First Nations, Inuit and Métis remains disproportionate.

Housing is a fundamental human right for every person in Canada. The National Housing Strategy Act recognized this right in Canadian law for the first time in 2019, after the Strategy was released. The Act requires the government of Canada to develop and maintain a National Housing Strategy to advance this right.

It is time to update the Strategy to reflect these realities, correct its failings, and prioritize the human right to housing for those in greatest need.

The National Housing Strategy belongs to every person in Canada who is experiencing homelessness, facing eviction, living in sub-standard conditions, confronting discrimination, or struggling to afford housing costs.

It is our best chance to address persistent failings in our housing system and uphold the human right to housing for people facing housing insecurity and homelessness.

It is our housing strategy – let's make it work for us.

I call on the Federal Government to make the following changes to the National Housing Strategy:

1. Provide better housing for Indigenous people, no matter where they live. The Strategy must address Canada's legacy of colonialism that results in systemic housing inequality for Indigenous people. This includes:

  • Most urgently, it must support the rapid development and delivery of an adequately funded for-Indigenous, by-Indigenous Urban, Rural and Northern Indigenous Housing strategy.
  • It must ensure that distinctions-based strategies adequately equip Indigenous governments to respond to the housing crises in their communities.
  • It must uphold Canada's international human rights obligations to Indigenous Peoples, in particular the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it must respond to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Calls to Justice of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry.

2. Make programs purpose-built to address the needs of people experiencing inadequate housing and homelessness, and ensure that they show measurable results for people most in need, including the Strategy's priority groups. For example:

  • The Strategy must expand the Canada Housing Benefit to reach everyone in core housing need, to help them cope with rising inflation and stay housed.
  • The Strategy must establish clear targets, timelines and measurement frameworks for reducing core housing need and ending homelessness for all priority populations, and provide regular, public progress reports, using disaggregated data.
  • Its programs must embed an intersectional Gender-based Analysis Plus approach to reach those who are most marginalized in the current housing system, particularly women and 2SLGBTQIA+ persons as well as people who are Black, Indigenous, racialized, disabled, low-income immigrants, refugees and refugee claimants, older adults and youth. Programs must also provide equal benefit these groups; for example, correcting the shortfall in gender-specific shelter spaces for women and gender-diverse people.
  • It must apply a standard definition of affordable housing based on the incomes of households experiencing core housing need and homelessness – not average market rents or average incomes of the whole population – with a goal that low-income households should not be spending more than 30% of total income on shelter costs.
  • It must build on the success of the Rapid Housing Initiative and pandemic income replacement programs – these prove that it is possible to house people experiencing homelessness and reduce core housing need.

3. Prioritize the development and acquisition of housing supply that is permanently affordable and provides community value. Research shows that fewer than five percent of housing units produced by the largest NHS capital programs are affordable to households experiencing core housing need and homelessness. Instead of unnecessarily financing what the market is already producing, NHS investments must return community value through housing that is affordable, accessible, and suitable for people excluded from the housing system. For example:

  • It must take immediate action to stop the loss of affordable housing, including an acquisition fund for the non-profit and co-op sector to preserve affordable supply and counter financialization.
  • It must expand support for deeply affordable, non-market housing options to better target the needs of people experiencing inadequate housing or homelessness.
  • It must streamline programs to make them more accessible for housing providers serving disadvantaged groups.

4. Demonstrate the leadership role of the federal government and a coordinated approach to involve all levels of government in solving the housing crisis. The Strategy requires concerted action and leadership from the federal government as well as other orders of government to end the housing crisis. This includes:

  • It must integrate a whole-of-government approach at the federal level, with all departments working alongside CMHC and Reaching Home.
  • It must integrate principles of the right to housing in all government decisions including Memoranda to Cabinet, Treasury Board submissions, and drafting instructions for new laws, building on lessons from the federal government's leadership in the areas of Gender-based Analysis Plus and anti-racism.
  • It must maintain the Community Based Tenant Initiative and take other measures to support the meaningful engagement of rights-holders in the design, monitoring, and evaluation of housing programs and policies.
  • It must recognize the federal government's leadership role in working with other orders of government to deliver on obligations to progressively realize the right to adequate housing.
  • It must amend the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Housing Partnership Framework and bilateral agreements to require that provinces and territories take a human rights-based approach to housing, and support them in meeting their human rights obligations.
  • Programs such as Reaching Home and Rapid Housing Initiative must include human rights conditionalities and provide the resources municipalities need to respond to homelessness and encampments in compliance with human rights.
  • It must establish a cycle of evaluation and continuous improvement in line with its triennial reporting obligations.

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