February 1, 2007
by Ian Chodikoff
Canada lags behind other Western nations in providing affordable housing to the estimated 1.7 million low-income households who are paying more for housing than they can comfortably manage. While the average Canadian household spends 21 percent of its gross income on housing, homeowners spend around 18 percent, as compared to renters who spend 28 percent of their income–a figure just below the 30 percent threshold level of affordability defined by the CMHC. What Canada needs is a national housing strategy to increase the number of innovative and affordable housing projects.
In Finding Room, Michael Shapcott, Senior Fellow with the Wellesley Institute and a leader in issues relating to homelessness and affordable housing in Canada writes, “Although many Canadians refer to the health care system or the social welfare system, few refer to the housing system. Most people only talk of the housing market.” Our current housing system is designed to operate smoothly as a market mechanism where home ownership is the only attractive option for developers, whereas the rental market is relegated to a real-estate investment vehicle. Let’s compare our situation to Europe. John Lorinc remarks in his book The New City that, with 40 percent of housing in the Netherlands considered “affordable” and 15 percent of all households in France and Germany living in affordable housing, “the common denominator in all these countries is a recognition that housing sits at the intersection between social welfare policy and urban quality of life.”
Since the 1980s, Canada’s housing system has become the most private sector- and market-based economy of any Western nation, including the US. Shapcott remarks that our housing market offers little support for developers who want to develop rental units and that Canada has the smallest social-housing sector of any major Western nation, except for the US.
In 2002, a task force on the federal role in urban issues called for a national housing policy and in January 2005, the Canadian Housing Framework was initiated by then Liberal Minister of Labour and Housing, Joe Fontana, who estimated that Canada needed to build 20,000-25,000 housing units per year to bring our country back to a level of affordable housing not seen since the ’80s. In June 2005, $1.6 billion was amended to the federal budget for affordable housing, but the current Conservative government has yet to spend a single penny of this money toward this goal.
Canada does have a handful of successful programs geared toward the creation of affordable housing, such as the National Homelessness Initiative (NHI). Introduced in 1999, it includes as one of its main components the allocation of $135 million per year for the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative (SCPI). The project designed by Levitt Goodman Architects (see p.21) is one example where SCPI helped finance housing facilities and services for the homeless. In December 2006, the federal government announced that it was extending funding to the NHI for two years. Although there has not been an increase in funding for this program since 1999, the average cost of housing in Canada has increased by 10 percent every year.
Ultimately, issues of affordable housing largely remain the responsibility of municipalities to assist local groups in implementing balanced mixed-income communities for low- to moderate-income households. Vancouver’s Woodward’s redevelopment, Calgary’s East Village and Toronto’s Regent Park are all recent examples designed to attract both public and private investment to create affordable housing units in a mixed-income neighbourhood. However, to create the number of partnerships devoted to delivering affordable housing never before seen in our country’s history, the federal government must initiate and facilitate discussions to bring municipalities, developers and non-profit organizations together so that innovative affordable housing projects across the country can meet current and future demands.
IAN CHODIKOFF ICHODIKOFF@CANADIANARCHITECT.COM
Initiated by a Presbyterian Church, Evangel Hall is a Toronto facility designed by architectsAlliance for marginalized people and those suffering from mental health issues. its insertion in the downtown site is a shining example of affordable housing.