07/23/2013 05:43 EDT | Updated 09/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Will Canada's Premiers Tackle Housing?

The premiers have a tough job this week. They have to choose which pressing issue will be discussed, debated and (hopefully) tackled in just three days at the Council of the Federation meeting in Niagara, Ontario. Host premier Kathleen Wynne will have to steer the conversation through issues related to transit, health care, skills training and employment, among others. While there is no shortage of fodder for discussion, a number of groups have banded together to ask for housing to make the agenda.

Lead by the Dignity for All Campaign, over 50 organizations from across the country are pushing the premiers to make housing a priority. The group sent a letter to Premier Wynne with two requests: the first for the premiers to push for continued federal investment in operation funds for housing providers, and the second for an immediate call for a federal-provincial-territorial housing ministers meeting.

This echoes the recent statement made by the provincial/territorial housing minister following a June meeting, where they called for long-term funding commitments for housing from the federal government. They extended an invitation for the federal minister responsible for housing to meet with them noting that all levels of government should work together on solutions.

Canada is a wealthy nation with much to offer, however, millions of households are housing insecure and at least 200,000 people are visibly homeless. These numbers stand to rise as federal funding for almost 600,000 subsidized households is set to decrease and ultimately expire over the next few years, and while waitlists for affordable housing continue to grow. Ontario is particularly vulnerable as the affordable housing waitlist continues to set records and currently stands at over 156,000 households.

With the premiers cordoned off for a few days in Niagara, it is an ideal time to address what the United Nations, and mayors of the country's largest cities have deemed a housing crisis. At the forefront of this emergency are vulnerable populations who are most likely to be affected by unaffordable and inadequate housing or homelessness. Luckily the premiers have every excuse to make housing a priority -- it is key social determinant of health, it is more cost-effective to house people rather than let emergency services and social programs pick up the slack, and it is a basic need and human right.

In fact, no matter what the premiers discuss, they will likely find there is a connection to housing.

If the topic shifts to the Canada Health Transfer or strengthening Canada's public health system, then the premiers would be remiss not to bring up housing. Poor housing makes people sick. A key social determinant of health, inadequate housing can contribute to poorer mental and physical health, increased stress levels and unsafe environments. From a cost perspective, it has been estimated that keeping someone homeless costs $55,000 annually, while providing supportive housing would only cost $37,000.

If the upcoming expiry of the Canada Social Transfer (CST) funding agreement comes up and premiers discuss the proposed cuts by the federal government, housing could naturally be slotted into the conversation. Some of the funds from the CST are invested in provincial housing programs and initiatives. Although a lack of spending guidelines from the federal government means that the amount designated for housing varies across the country.

If jobs become the hot topic then housing should definitely be part of the conversation because of the capacity for job creation through construction and in the trades. For every $1 invested by housing by the federal government there is a net benefit of $1.40 to the economy. The federal government has touted housing investments as a means to create jobs in a press release promoting the Economic Action plan, so essentially more people are housed and employed. How could you go wrong?

Regardless of the actual topic slated for discussion, there is no excuse not to debate the need for action on housing. With the potential to assist insecure households, create jobs and save money, this is a no-brainer.