October 10, 2015 8:00 am
Updated: October 10, 2015 2:06 pm

140,000 Canadian families are waiting for housing. Here’s what the parties plan to do

Gillian Smithard sits on her balcony in a rent-subsidized unit in downtown Ottawa.

Leslie Young / Global News
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For four years, Shaun has been waiting for a home.

The 39-year-old suffers from schizo-affective disorder and lives on a fixed income, supplemented with some work as a peer support worker.

He’s been living in the same North Vancouver apartment for 13 years but the building was recently sold and rent has gone up. Provincial and private-charity subsidies still only leave him $440 a month to live on.

So a $21 rent increase may seem small, but it hurts.

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His mom Susan James helps as much as she can. But she knows she won’t be able to do that forever.

“I’m 65. I have a chronic illness. I don’t know how long I’m going to be around,” she said.

If her son got a space in social housing it would give her “peace of mind,” James said: She could be sure that he would have a place to live when she can no longer take care of him.

Easier said than done.

“Somebody has to die – or move on to a better circumstance, something good happens in their lives. But how often does that happen?”

Waiting game

Tens of thousands of Canadian families are waiting for subsidized housing. Toronto has the biggest waiting list, with more than 90,000 applications. According to the housing agency’s website, wait times range from one to five years for a bachelor unit, seven to ten years for a one-bedroom, five to ten years for a 2-bedroom, and 10 to 12 years for a 3- or 4-bedroom.

Click here to view data »

But waiting lists aren’t the whole story, says Ray Sullivan, CEO of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, an affordable housing provider in downtown Ottawa.

Ottawa has 9,500 households on the list, but the “true demand,” Sullivan said, “is the 40,000 households in the city of Ottawa that are in core housing need.”

That means people who are spending more than 30 per cent of their income before taxes on rent, or who have too many people stuffed into too few rooms.

“That’s 2 out of every 5 renter [households] in the whole city,” he said.

“Rents are high. Average incomes are not.”

So, people pay a high percentage of their incomes on rent and have to skimp in other areas – like food, as Global News has reported.

Or clothes. Families with young children can be especially hard hit.

And research has shown that having a stable home helps people tackle other problems in their lives, including chronic illness.

“How can you find a job if you don’t have a stable home? It’s almost impossible,” said Catherine Fortin LeFaivre, director of public affairs for the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association – a national housing advocacy group.

“There hasn’t been much social housing built in the last 25 years or so.”

And what already exists is in need of repair.

Historically, the federal government supported social housing through “operating agreements,” which at their height in the mid-nineties amounted to about $2 billion a year. These were agreements where the federal government gave money directly to housing providers (later, distributed through the provinces) to help with mortgage payments and in many cases, subsidizing low-income tenants’ rents. But these agreements are starting to expire.

Now, the federal contribution is more like $1.7 billion. The housing association estimates that by 2040, this funding will be completely gone and there will be even less affordable housing than there is now because social housing agencies will have to raise their rent or sell their buildings in order to make ends meet.

Click here to view data »

Social housing advocates are pushing for three things: new social housing units; more money to help repair existing units; and more rental subsidies for households. They’ve kept their demands a bit vague on purpose – they want parties to work out the details, as there are many ways to tackle the issue.

But it can be tough to get affordable housing on the agenda.

“There’s … a lot of attention paid to the ownership market,” Sullivan said.

“It’s on the business news, on the radio every morning – how are the housing starts doing? Those sorts of things. And very little attention is paid to the rental market. … Cynically, I think a lot of lower-income people don’t vote. And I think politicians know that.”

Housing advocates like Fortin LeFaivre are hoping to change that.

“Housing affordability really touches everybody at some level.”

A rent-geared-to-income room of one’s own

Gillian Smithard considers herself lucky.

The 70-year-old lives in a rent-subsidized one-bedroom apartment in downtown Ottawa, with a balcony covered in greenery and a vegetable garden on the roof.

“I feel very, very privileged, blessed and grateful to be here. I love my apartment. I love everything about it,” she said.

“I’m going out of here in a box. Not before.”

To get that apartment, she planned ahead – 12 years ahead. She willingly spent more time on the waiting list because she made a number of special requests: She didn’t want to live in a seniors-only building, for example.

Social housing was her safety net once she lost her full-time job in her 50s, she said. But she’d worked in housing agencies before; she knew the drill.

“Because I knew the system, when I got laid off, I immediately put in an application for housing.”

While she waited, she got credentials to teach English as a second language. She taught English in Mexico and Ottawa, moving frequently from place to place.

“I wasn’t homeless in the sense that I wasn’t on the street. But I was maybe staying with a son here, maybe I got a room with a job in Mexico, sometimes I was house-sitting. I was all right with that at the time.”

As she got older, she decided that she wanted to stay in one place. She was very happy to get the call about a social housing unit – not least because as a retired senior, having rent set at 30 per cent of her income makes the rest of her life more affordable.

“This gives me that little bit of extra money so that I don’t have to go to the food bank, I don’t have to eat processed food. I like to eat fresh food. It’s not always cheap.”

House parties: Here’s what the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Green parties would do about affordable housing

Green

  • National housing strategy, developed in concert with provincial and municipal governments;
  • $500 million a year toward new social housing construction and repairs;
  • Guaranteed annual income – an initiative the Greens say will help more people afford a place to live.

“We believe that housing should be recognized as a human right,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

Liberal

  • As part of a $20 billion investment in social infrastructure over four years, create new housing units across the country – though details on how many and when are a bit short;
  • $125 million in tax incentives for developers to build and repair market rental units;
  • Conducting an inventory of existing federal buildings that could be converted into affordable housing;
  • Direct the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to provide financing for new affordable rental housing construction, though details are short on how this would work.

NDP

“Affordable housing is a right. That’s my belief,” said NDP leader Tom Mulcair at an announcement Wednesday.

Conservatives

  • Focusing on home ownership and a permanent, billion-dollar home renovation tax credit;
  • Stated that the government is currently spending $2.3 billion annually to support affordable housing – which isn’t a promise for more funding.
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