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Efforts to resolve systemic housing inequities in Canada stalled by COVID-19

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A key body the Liberals vowed to create to help resolve systemic inequities in Canada’s housing system remains unstaffed, with delays in appointments chalked up to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The national housing council and a related advocate were created, on paper, as part of the Liberal government’s decade-long housing strategy that was put into law last year.

Applications closed in mid-October but the positions hadn’t been filled by the time the pandemic struck Canada in mid-March.

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An online notice from early April says the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. still hopes to establish the council this year, but suggests a delay due to COVID-19.

The notice said the federal government was “focused on addressing this crisis” given the “uncertain and evolving circumstances related to COVID-19.” The notice added that appointing the council “remains a priority for the government.”

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Two months later and with the backdrop of promises by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address systemic racism and inequities in Canada, appointments have not been made.

Leilani Farha, global director of The Shift, a group that advocates for the right to housing, said the council and advocate could be playing a large role in how governments respond to the pandemic.

N.S. housing support workers helping to transition vulnerable people into homes during COVID-19
N.S. housing support workers helping to transition vulnerable people into homes during COVID-19

“You have a pandemic and your main policy to address the pandemic is (to say) ‘Stay home and wash your hands and physical distance.’ That is a housing remedy to a deadly virus, so wouldn’t it be top of mind and your first move to establish these two entities that are squarely looking at housing?” Farha said in an interview.

“It seems only logical to me.”

She said the importance of the council and advocate has only been heightened by Black Lives Matter protests raising awareness and calling for action on systemic racism facing Black communities and Indigenous people.

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A spokeswoman for Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen said work is underway to establish the housing advocate’s office at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Jessica Eritou said in a statement that the advocate’s work would focus on vulnerable groups, and those who have experienced homelessness to improve Canada’s housing laws, including “policies to make sure everyone has safe, suitable, and affordable housing which meets their needs.”

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That’s effectively what housing advocates talk about when they discuss the “right to housing.”

Characterizing housing as a human right is meant to provide recourse, usually through tribunals, to anyone wrongfully denied a home for reasons such as ethnicity, religion, or gender identity and allow for watchdogs to conduct reviews to remove systemic barriers to housing.

MPs on a House of Commons committee last Monday were urged to make the right to housing, and dealing with systemic inequities, a key part of the next phase of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, told MPs during the virtual meeting that meaningful implementation of the right to housing, “to surface and resolve inequities in systemic or structural barriers” would have an economic boost by limiting housing need.

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“As the private sector well knows, when you listen to your customers and respond to their needs, you get much more efficiency and better outcomes. This is at the heart of the right to housing,” he said.