Basic housing should be a human right for all Canadians

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Social housing should be national in scope, and part of a major income reform. Immigration and refugee support should be regionally based, and there should be incentives for moving to underpopulated regions.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 5, 2024.

OTTAWA—Immigration Minister Marc Miller made a $362-million refugee housing announcement last week.

Instead of garnering positive impact, the announcement opened the door for provincial governments and critics to claim that the amount in question is simply too little to deal with the problem.

Quebec is looking for a cheque for $470-million, as outlined in a letter from Premier François Legault last month.

Legault is also asking the federal government to stem the flow of refugees finding their way into the country by land, sea, and air.

Miller’s announcement seemed to reinforce Legault’s concerns.

“I think we owe it to Canadians to reform a system that has very much been a stopgap measure since 2017 to deal with large historic flows of migration.”

Miller is speaking frankly, but his admission simply sets the government up for further criticism.

If 2017 is the date when things went sidewise, the federal government has had seven years to come up with a solution.

Like the housing crisis, the Liberals are taking the full brunt of criticism for immigration spikes.

The link between the two is tenuous at best, but the government doesn’t seem able to convince the public about who is responsible for the housing crisis in the first place.

It is not refugee spikes.

It was bad public policy foisted on Canada when the federal government was convinced by the provinces to get out of the housing field back in 1986.

For 30 years, the provinces had full responsibility, including federal transfer funding, for housing construction in their jurisdictions.

For the most part, they did nothing to fill the gap in social or Indigenous housing, while city hall used housing payments for new builds as a way to finance municipal coffers.

The responsibility for housing was completely in provincial hands for three decades until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the courageous step of getting back into housing in 2017.

The refugee housing problem would not exist if sufficient social housing had been built over 30 years for residents in need. Help should be available to anyone who cannot afford market solutions.

Meanwhile, the cost of market rental housing for those who can pay continues to rise as demand outstrips supply.

That is a completely different issue from the cost of immigration and refugee services.

For the federal government to defend itself against accusations that it caused the housing crisis, it needs a national strategy engaging cities and provinces in the solutions.

There are a few provinces that have continued to support social housing in the past three decades but, by and large, the availability of housing for the poor has not been increased.

The Liberals have worked to tackle child poverty, and some of those direct payments have definitely made a difference.

According to statistics, more than two million Canadians have been lifted out of poverty because of the Canada Child Benefit.

But as incomes grow, the cost of living grows along with it.

The Liberals need a big new idea that goes beyond simply ministers making announcements in their own bailiwicks.

At one point, the government was looking at the creation of a Guaranteed Annual Income for all Canadians.

That idea needs to be dusted off, and the feds need to invite provinces and municipalities to the table to see who can help in what manner with the creation of a guaranteed income.

Basic housing should be a human right for all Canadians, with the guaranteed income built on the cost of housing by region.

Social housing should be national in scope, and it should be part of a major income reform.

Immigration and refugee support should be regionally based, and there should be incentives for moving to underpopulated regions of the country.

A big vision on how to house the underhoused, feed the underfed, and finance the poor would get everyone to the table.

In the current system, everyone is blaming the federal government for a problem that has largely been caused by provincial indifference and municipal greed.

The country also needs to understand what constitutes a basic housing right.

What should be the average housing size for socially funded financing?

Many Canadians live alone these days, which changes the type and size of housing we should be building.

There are no magic bullets. But the federal government needs to think bigger than single housing announcements if it wants to spread the responsibility—and the blame—for the current crisis.

A guaranteed income is the answer.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.