Section 1 – The human right to adequate housing

1. What is the human right to adequate housing?

The right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right for everyone in Canada. The human right to adequate housing means that all people are equally entitled to live in dignity in a safe and secure home, and that everyone should be able to access housing that meets their needs without discrimination or harassment.

The human right to adequate housing is also an important precondition for several other human rights, including the rights to life, work, physical and mental heath, social security, political participation, and education.

2. Where does the idea of the human right to adequate housing come from?

The human right to adequate housing is not a new concept. It is a fundamental human right that is recognized under international law, as early as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Canada agreed to the progressive realization of the right to housing and an adequate standard of living in 1976 when its signature on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights came into force. Canada’s commitment to the human right to adequate housing was reaffirmed in 2019 when Parliament passed the National Housing Strategy Act.

3. What do we mean by adequate housing?

The human right to adequate housing means that everyone has the right to housing that meets a set of basic conditions. These conditions are recognized under international human rights law. The conditions required to meet this standard of adequacy mean that housing must be:

  • Secure – security of tenure provides protection from arbitrary eviction, forced relocation or harassment;
  • Affordable - housing costs should not be a barrier to meeting other basic needs such as food, and costs should be protected against unreasonable increases;
  • Habitable – dwellings should have adequate space for the inhabitants, be properly maintained, and provide protection from the elements and other threats to health and well-being;
  • Provide basic services – including safe drinking water, sanitation, heating, lighting, and emergency services;
  • In a location that is close to employment and basic social services such as childcare, education and healthcare, and is not located in a polluted or dangerous area;
  • Accessible – for people of all abilities, particularly those experiencing discrimination or living in vulnerable circumstances; and
  • Culturally appropriate – respects and is appropriate for the expression of the inhabitants’ cultural identity and ways of life.

All people should have equitable access to adequate housing, without discrimination based on gender, race, disability, faith, place of birth, age, sexual orientation, and other grounds.

4. Does everyone in Canada have the right to housing?

Yes. The National Housing Strategy Act (2019) affirmed that the right to adequate housing without discrimination is a fundamental human right for everyone living in Canada. In line with the Act and the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing, the Federal Housing Advocate will put particular focus on those with the greatest housing need while Canada works towards achieving adequate housing for all.

The Act states that those in greatest need are “members of vulnerable groups, persons with lived experience of housing need and persons with lived experience of homelessness.” This includes: Indigenous people; adults and children fleeing domestic violence; seniors; people who identify as 2SLGBTQI+; people with disabilities; people with disabilities related to mental health or addiction; veterans; young adults; members of racialized groups; and recent immigrants and refugees.

The Advocate recognizes that women and gender-diverse people within each of these groups are disproportionately affected by housing need.

5. Do all governments in Canada have a responsibility to realize the human right to adequate housing?

Yes. In Canada, supporting the human right to adequate housing for all is a shared responsibility between all levels of government. It requires collaboration and a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples. This shared responsibility is also enshrined in international law – all levels of government in Canada are required to respect, protect, and fulfill the human right to adequate housing, since international human rights treaties and obligations apply equally at a federal, provincial and territorial level.

Fulfilling the human right to adequate housing for everyone in Canada requires all levels of government to live up to their joint responsibilities.

6. What does the “progressive realization” of the human right to adequate housing mean?

Inadequate housing and homelessness are complex, structural and systemic problems. In international human rights law, the phrase “progressive realization” acknowledges that solving these problems won’t happen overnight – it will take time, effort, coordination and resources before everyone can equally enjoy adequate housing.

However, progressive realization also means that governments must act as quickly and as effectively as possible to promote, protect and fulfill the human right to adequate housing, especially for those most in need. Put simply, governments have an obligation to take effective measures and create the conditions to fulfill the human right to adequate housing for everyone.

In international human rights law, progressive realization creates an obligation for governments to take immediate concrete steps, to use all available resources, and to use all appropriate means, including the adoption of legislative measures, to create the conditions for everyone to have access to adequate housing. It also means ensuring access to justice for individuals through administrative and judicial mechanisms. Finally, progressive realization puts an emphasis on prioritizing policies and programs for those most in need of housing.

The Federal Housing Advocate is responsible for monitoring that the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing is being fulfilled in Canada. It will also require the Federal Advocate to strive to work with all levels of government to apply the maximum resources available to eliminate housing need and homelessness in the shortest timeframe possible.

7. Does the human right to adequate housing mean that governments must provide everyone with housing?

No. The human right to adequate housing means governments must ensure that the housing system enables everyone to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity. For example, governments must put in place measures to prevent homelessness, prohibit forced evictions, address discrimination, ensure security of tenure to all, and help guarantee that everyone’s housing is adequate. These measures, including legislation, policies, strategies and programs, should prioritize the right to housing for vulnerable groups and persons with lived experience of housing need or homelessness.

Section 2 – The National Housing Strategy Act

8. What is the National Housing Strategy Act?

In 2019, Parliament passed the National Housing Strategy Act, which recognizes housing as a human right and commits the Federal government to further the progressive realization of the human right to adequate housing.

The Act establishes accountability tools to help support and monitor the right to housing in Canada, including:

  • A National Housing Strategy, which supports the progressive realization of the human right to adequate housing;
  • A National Housing Council, to oversee the implementation of the strategy (of which the Federal Housing Advocate is an ex officio member); and
  • A Federal Housing Advocate, to promote and protect the right to housing in Canada.
9. What role does the National Housing Council play in advancing the human right to adequate housing?

The National Housing Council’s duties include promoting participation and inclusion in the development of housing policy; providing advice to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development on how to improve housing outcomes; and offering advice on the effectiveness of the National Housing Strategy to the Minister. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is responsible for providing administrative support and services to the National Housing Council.

10. How does the National Housing Strategy Act define the government’s housing policy?

The Act declares that it is the government of Canada’s housing policy to:

  • recognize that the human right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right affirmed in international law;
  • recognize that housing is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of the person and to building sustainable and inclusive communities;
  • support improved housing outcomes for the people of Canada; and
  • further the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
11. What are the implications of putting the human right to adequate housing at the centre of Canada’s housing policy?

Approaching housing as a human right reinforces the intrinsic link between the right to housing and human dignity. It also connects the human right to housing to other fundamental human rights, including the rights to life, work, physical and mental heath, social security, political participation, and education.

Using a human rights-based approach to housing policy reinforces the expectation that legislation, policies and programs affecting housing will emphasize participation, empowerment, accountability, and non-discrimination while fulfilling the human right to adequate housing. A human rights-based approach also focuses on groups with the greatest housing need, including people with lived experience of housing need and homelessness.

12. Has the National Housing Strategy identified priority groups?

Yes. A human rights-based approach to housing puts priority on addressing the housing situation of those in greatest need. The Strategy identifies the following priority groups: adults and children fleeing domestic violence; seniors; young adults; Indigenous peoples; people with disabilities; people with disabilities related to mental health or addiction; veterans; members of 2SLGBTQI+ communities; racialized groups; recent immigrants and refugees; and people experiencing homelessness. Women and gender-diverse people are disproportionately affected within all of the priority groups. The National Housing Strategy Act directs the Advocate to focus on assessing the impact of the government’s housing policy on “persons who are members of vulnerable groups, persons with lived experience of housing need and persons with lived experience of homelessness.” The Advocate will review and consider systemic housing issues faced by priority groups named in the Act and the National Housing Strategy, as well as others in housing need.

Section 3 – The Federal Housing Advocate

13. What is the purpose of the Federal Housing Advocate?

The goal of the Advocate’s work is to drive change on key systemic housing issues and advance the right to housing for all in Canada. The Advocate will monitor the human right to adequate housing and the National Housing Strategy, and ensure a meaningful voice and role for affected individuals and communities. The Advocate is responsible for making recommendations to improve Canada’s housing laws, policies and programs so that they enable people and families in Canada to have access to adequate, affordable and safe housing that meets their needs. The Advocate also sits as an ex-officio member of the National Housing Council.

14. What does the Federal Housing Advocate do?

The Advocate:

  • Holds governments to account on their human rights obligations to address housing need and homelessness across Canada;
  • Makes recommendations to the government and other decision makers to improve Canada’s housing laws, policies and programs;
  • Raises awareness on the most common and critical housing issues people are facing;
  • Amplifies the voices of those impacted by housing need and homelessness;
  • Receives submissions on systemic housing issues from affected groups;
  • Reviews systemic housing issues and makes recommendations to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. The Advocate may refer key systemic issues that fall under the jurisdiction of Parliament to the National Housing Council to form a review panel;
  • Monitors and reports on the progressive realization of the right to housing in Canada;
  • Monitors and assesses the impacts of federal legislation, policies and programs affecting the housing system, including the National Housing Strategy Act and the related National Housing Strategy;
  • Analyzes and conducts research, initiates studies, engages with stakeholders, and consults on systemic housing issues; and,
  • Reports annually to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and makes recommendations to the Minister on how to address systemic housing issues.
15. Why does the Advocate look at systemic housing issues?

Inadequate housing and homelessness are complex, institutional and systemic problems. Fixing systemic housing issues means that we need to take a very wide look at the many factors that create inadequate housing, housing need, and homelessness.

The Advocate’s focus on systemic issues will include approaches that recognize that racism, poverty, colonialism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other structural inequalities can create barriers to access to, and the full enjoyment of, the right to adequate housing.

In order to make recommendations to improve systemic housing issues, the Federal Housing Advocate will examine how laws, policies and programs should be changed to ensure the progressive realization of the right to housing. Rather than a focus on providing individual remedies, the Advocate is empowered to recommend changes to improve housing outcomes for those most in need.

16. Can the Advocate solve my individual housing problem?

The Advocate’s main focus is to push for change to solve systemic housing issues. It is important to recognize that the Federal Housing Advocate does not help with individual disputes. People who need help with an individual circumstance should pursue other mechanisms, such as a Landlord-Tenant Board, legal clinic, human rights commission or other mechanism in their province or territory. If you are seeking assistance regarding a housing rights dispute or concern, we invite you to contact the United Way 211 service.

211 is a non-emergency helpline for essential social services, community organizations, health and government programs. It helps people navigate these programs and services quickly and easily. Their housing services include: help finding housing, health-related temporary housing, home improvement for accessibility, home ownership, housing expense assistance, tenant and landlord support, legal clinics, and supportive and transitional housing, among others. You can visit the 211 website.

17. How do I make a submission on a systemic housing issue to the Federal Housing Advocate?

The Office of the Federal Housing Advocate is unable to receive submissions until the Advocate has been appointed. We are currently developing an online system for receiving and tracking submissions and will release detailed guidelines on how to make a submission once the Advocate takes office.

18. How does the Advocate make recommendations to help solve systemic housing issues?

Following the Advocate-led review of a systemic housing issue, the Advocate must provide the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, and the person or group that presented the submission with a report. The report explains the Advocate’s opinion on the issue, and any recommendations — respecting matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction — to further the housing policy, including the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing, or the National Housing Strategy.

The Advocate is responsible for reporting annually to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. The Annual Report will include a summary of the Office’s activities, and contain recommendations to address systemic housing issues, respecting matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction. The Advocate can also submit recommendations at any time to the Minister, who must respond within 120 days. The Advocate may provide recommendations to other levels of government, but these bodies do not have the same statutory responsibility to respond.

19. How will the Advocate’s work relate to the mandate of the Canadian Human Rights Commission?
  • Human Rights Protection: If a submission received by the Advocate also falls within the jurisdiction of the anti-discrimination mandate of the Commission, the Advocate may refer the matter to the Commission’s complaints process.
  • Human Rights Promotion: The Commission is responsible for promoting equality and inclusion in Canada. We do this by raising awareness, encouraging dialogue, conducting research and analysis, engaging with civil society and the international human rights community, providing expert advice to policy-makers, and speaking out on pressing human rights issues affecting people in vulnerable situations. Economic, social and cultural rights are currently one of the Commission’s policy priorities.
  • International Engagement: As Canada’s national human rights institution, the Commission is responsible for monitoring and reporting on Canada’s compliance with its international human rights obligations.
20. How will the Advocate ensure participation and engagement from communities and people across Canada with lived experience of housing need?

The Federal Housing Advocate’s mandate is guided by a human rights-based approach, which values human dignity, participation, accountability, inclusion and non-discrimination, transparency, access to justice, and respect for human rights laws and obligations. Public engagement and input are critical to informing the work of the Advocate. The Advocate will follow a broad and ongoing engagement process with people with lived experience of housing need and homelessness, civil society organizations, governments and experts across Canada, and publish reports available to the public that detail this engagement work.

Section 4 – Review Panels

21. What is an Advocate-led review?

The Advocate is empowered to conduct their own independent review of any systemic housing issue and make recommendations to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development.

22. What is a review panel?

Under the National Housing Strategy Act, the Advocate may decide to refer a systemic housing issue that falls under the jurisdiction of Parliament to the National Housing Council, and request that it forms a review panel of three council members to examine the issue. The review panel holds a hearing, and must offer the public an opportunity to participate - particularly members of affected communities and groups that have expertise in human rights and housing. The panel then prepares a report with conclusions and recommendations for the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, who must respond within 120 days and table that response in the House of Commons and the Senate. The Advocate’s recommendations as well as the review panel’s findings will help to identify solutions and necessary reforms to Canada’s housing laws, policies and programs. This mechanism is a way to target the most critical systemic issues, as well as urge the government to take action on them. It also gives members of affected communities an opportunity to be included and participate in the process, and to contribute to housing policy and solutions.

Note: the procedures for review panels are currently being developed by the National Housing Council.

23. What issues can be brought before review panels?

The review panels can only review systemic housing issues respecting matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction.

24. What happens once the review panel makes a recommendation?

The review panels are responsible for preparing a report that includes the panel’s opinion on the issue, and any recommendation to take measures on the issue. This report containing the recommendations is submitted to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. The Minister of Families, Children and Social Development must respond to a report submitted by a review panel within 120 days after the day on which it is received, and table that response in the House of Commons and the Senate.

Section 5 – The human right to adequate housing and Canada’s international commitments

25. What are Canada’s international obligations in relation to the human right to adequate housing?

Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. Article 11 of the Covenant recognizes that people in Canada have the right "to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions." Obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to adequate housing can also be found in other human rights treaties to which Canada is a party, including:

  • the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women;
  • the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
  • the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination;
  • the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities;
  • the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; and
  • the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
26. How does the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People influence the human right to adequate housing for Indigenous Peoples in Canada?

The rights and principles in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) must inform the interpretation and fulfillment of the right to housing in Canada. In particular: when examining the connections between the right to housing and the right to self-determination; rights related to lands, resources and territories; social and economic rights; and rights related to non-discrimination. The Declaration also underscores the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ right to determine their own housing institutions, programmes and policies.

27. How are the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda related to the human right to adequate housing?

Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. More specifically, Goal 11.1 commits to ensuring access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services by 2030. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are interlinked, and making progress on all goals and targets will help advance the right to housing – particularly those related to eliminating poverty, gender equality and peace, justice and strong institutions. Furthermore, the SDG principle of "leave no one behind" falls in step with the National Housing Strategy Act’s direction to focus on those who are most in housing need first.

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