November 22, 2016

National Housing Day commemorates the moment in November 1998 when FCM's Big City Mayors' Caucus joined with frontline housing and public health advocates to declare homelessness a national disaster. At that time, Canadians were immersed in troubling stories about overloaded shelters, tragic deaths on frozen streets and long waits for subsidized housing. Eighteen years on, Canada is facing an even more systemic crisis that threatens the foundation of the strong, inclusive communities that we all want to build.

Today, 1.5 million families can't find safe, decent housing they can afford. One in five renters spends half their income on shelter. People relying on Canada's 600,000 social housing homes are vulnerable as more federal operating agreements permanently expire each year. Average shelter occupancy rates are again pushing 90 per cent, driven by longer stays among families and older Canadians. And housing is becoming less affordable at every income level.

This National Housing Day, however, Canadians have good reason for new optimism. After standing alone for years as the only G8 country with no national housing strategy, Canada's government has committed to bringing one in. Earlier today, the minister responsible for housing, Jean-Yves Duclos, released a summary of Canadians' ideas and recommendations for that strategy. These included FCM's comprehensive 10-point plan - in many ways a culmination of our analysis and on-the-ground efforts since 1998.

The FCM plan is very clear: tackling the housing crisis will require significant federal investment — and we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure it. The federal government has made a bold decision to commit $21.9 billion to Phase 2 of its Social Infrastructure Fund. With another bold decision to dedicate the lion's share of that investment to housing solutions, we can break the cycle of the housing crisis. Any other course would fail to meet the urgency of the challenge we see unfolding in our cities and communities.

The FCM plan keeps Canada's social housing homes safe, affordable and available. It gets the federal government back to building social housing — a vital role that it abruptly ended in 1993 — along with new affordable housing. Our plan kick-starts rental markets in innovative ways to offer a wider spectrum of affordable options for Canadians. It doubles down on federal-local homelessness initiatives that are starting to produce positive outcomes at the local level.

Safe, affordable housing is the bedrock of strong, livable communities. Communities that attract talented workers and top employers. Communities where people can find that basic sense of security they need to contribute to their fullest — as workers, creators, innovators, volunteers, families and neighbours. My hope is that next year on National Housing Day, we can all look each other in the eye and say, "Yes, finally, we are on the right track."

Clark Somerville is President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a local/regional councillor for the Town of Halton Hills and Halton Region. FCM is the national voice of local government, with nearly 2,000 members representing 90 per cent of Canada's population.

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