01/04/2012 11:03 EST | Updated 03/04/2012 05:12 EST

Canada's Housing Crisis Goes Beyond Attawapiskat


Recent images of the northern Ontario First Nation community in Attawapiskat illustrated the shocking reality that there are Canadians living in decrepit housing. However, while ramshackle housing is common in many Aboriginal communities, the crisis embodied by Attawapiskat is not isolated to the Aboriginal demographic, nor to remote communities.

From coast to coast to coast, from our biggest cities to the smallest hamlets, millions of Canadians struggle with inadequate and unaffordable housing. While hundreds of thousands more are homeless -- twin crises that warrant much greater attention from the federal government beyond an emergency response such as that being given to Attawapiskat.

In the early 1990s, the federal government abandoned a national approach to housing, replacing it with various housing agreements and programs subject to periodic renewal. In the absence of a national approach -- and a concrete, multi-stakeholder strategy founded around the human right to housing (per Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) -- it is timely to ask whether the current system is working.

The Wellesley Institute reported in 2010 that federal funding for housing declined since 1989 to sink below $2 billion. Meanwhile, over 1.5 million households (20 per cent of which are Aboriginal) experience housing insecurity, meaning more than 30 per cent of household income is devoted to shelter costs. An estimated that up to 300,000 people are absolutely homeless (i.e., sleeping on streets, in city parks etc.) while a further 450,000 to 900,000 people couch surf, use shelters, or live in overcrowded conditions.

On December 13, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) produced its biannual rental vacancy report indicating that vacancy rates have dropped on average across the country. Currently the national vacancy rate is 2.2 per cent, down from 2.6 per cent in October 2010, which has been noted by housing experts as "the danger zone" as it is less than three per cent. Fewer available spaces means higher demand, which can drive up rental costs and put low-income individuals and families in an even more difficult situation.

Making matters worse is the issue of affordability: Many major centres continue to see costs increase while average incomes remain stagnant. British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario -- the three provinces identified as the hardest hit by the 2008-2009 recession -- have the highest average rental costs.

Based on the metric of Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut-Offs After-Tax, B.C. also held the 2009 provincial title for the worst poverty rate -- 12 per cent (the national average is 9.6 per cent), and Ontario wasn't far behind at 10.1 per cent.

Inflation has outpaced labour market and welfare incomes. Housing is increasingly unaffordable for many. Federal support for housing has plummeted and could decrease further in an era of so-called fiscal restraint. The numbers point to more and more households unable to meet, or at risk of not meeting, basic needs including housing. Something's gotta give.

During the federal pre-budget discussions in the fall of 2011, Citizens for Public Justice noted that if the federal government cancelled the corporate tax cuts scheduled for January 2012, $3 billion in revenue could be directed towards addressing the housing and homelessness crises, creating 47,000 jobs, building 155,550 affordable housing units, and supporting critical repairs to 200,000 homes.

While none of these measures would solve rental problems, they would be a step forward for many low-income individuals and families on social housing waitlists. Housing is a key social determinant of health. In turn, health problems caused or exacerbated by homelessness or poor housing add to the demands and stresses on healthcare systems. According to the Health Disparities Task Group of the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Advisory Committee on Population Health and Health Security, an estimated 20 per cent of the costs of Canada's health care system are attributed to "income disparities" (i.e., poverty).

Solutions to address poverty, housing problems, and homelessness have been identified by parliamentary committees, expert working groups, social justice NGOs, and academics. The federal government has a wealth of solution options at its disposal and can choose to make tackling these issues, together, a top five priority. What it must not ignore are the images and stories from Attawapiskat -- a compelling reminder of needs to be addressed and rights to be honoured and protected.

Rob Rainer is Executive Director and Megan Yarema is Director, Education and Outreach of Canada Without Poverty, a national charity.