July 15, 2016

The following op-ed was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, July 15, 2016 and in the Vancouver Province on Sunday, July 17, 2016.

By Clark Somerville, President, Federation of Canadian Municipalities 

Just before Canada Day, the federal government launched consultations for a long-awaited National Housing Strategy. The timing could not be better. Reflecting on our values and celebrating what makes Canada a great place to live must shape the National Housing Strategy, and, there is not a moment to lose. Too many Canadians are facing a housing crisis. We need to make Canada as welcoming as possible with affordable places to live, ensuring that all Canadians have a bright future in the cities and communities they call home. 

As a country, we are not keeping up with the demand for housing options and the lack of affordable housing is having a real impact on Canadians. 200,000 vulnerable households — seniors, newcomers, Aboriginal families, people living with disabilities and others — are at risk of losing their subsidized social housing, as the federal government's plans to withdraw its investment in social housing accelerates. Meanwhile waitlists for social housing continue to grow, as rents in the private market rise.  Indigenous Canadians living on and off-reserve face distinct and pressing housing challenges. Many households in Northern communities are grappling with high construction and energy costs, impeding affordability. And too many people are experiencing homelessness in communities of all sizes. 

Thirty per cent of Canadians rent, and one in five renters spend more than half of their income on shelter. But with rental housing comprising only 11 per cent of new housing construction since 1996, vacancy rates have plummeted, pushing the price of those homes to unaffordable levels for many people. For the middle class, homeownership is also increasingly out of reach as prices have outstripped incomes. 

The federal government's National Housing Strategy must lay out a plan of action to tackle these issues. 

All governments must act to ensure Canadians have affordable places to call home. By re-investing in existing social housing, the federal government can ensure this essential part of the housing system will continue to offer pathways out of homelessness and support the vulnerable Canadians who rely on it. Building more subsidized and affordable rental homes will open doors to opportunities for low-income Canadians, including newcomers, seniors and families. Incentivizing the development of more rental housing pays off and pays forward. If we can increase vacancy rates, helping to stabilize rent levels, cities and communities can attract workers and students. A stable and diverse rental housing system in cities and communities also makes for more affordable homeownership, which benefits everyone.  Every billion dollars invested in housing generates an estimated $1.4 billion in economic growth and creates 13,000 new jobs. The federal government recognized the housing crisis facing many Canadians in its last budget, investing $2.3 billion to improve housing affordability.  

This is an important first step and municipalities are ready to do their part alongside the federal and provincial/territorial governments to fix this crisis. The National Housing Strategy must be an ambitious plan if we are to realize the social and economic benefits of improved housing affordability. Significant and dedicated funding to implement the National Housing Strategy from Phase 2 of the federal government's infrastructure plan is essential. 

Ensuring Canadians from all walks of life have an affordable place to live is central to inclusive and prosperous cities and communities. Canada's future depends on it.

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