Libby’s Bill for a National Housing Strategy

Bill C-304 Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing Act
Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP)

When I was first elected to the House in 1997, one of the key issues I brought forward, as the member for Vancouver East, was the critical need for social housing and for affordable housing, not only in Vancouver but across the country. That seems like a long time ago. I feel we have had so many steps going backwards and only a few baby steps going forward.

I want to begin my comments about my bill by pointing out that Canada used to have a sterling record when it came to the provision of affordable housing. We had many good federal programs, whether it was for co-op housing, social housing or special needs housing. There were great programs through CMHC during the 1970s and the 1980s, even going back to the end of the second world war when the vets’ housing was built in cities across the country. The federal government always had an incredibly strong presence in the provision of housing. It was seen as a responsible mandate of the federal government.

Regrettably, that all changed in the early 1990s, when a then Liberal government decided that it wanted to get out of the housing business. Ever since then, it has been an unfolding disaster across the country. Therefore, many of us today now represent communities where we see the travesty of growing homelessness. People are sleeping on the streets or living with housing insecurity. Working families cannot afford rents. Seniors are very insecure in their housing. The situation has deteriorated for people with disabilities and certainly for the aboriginal communities both on-reserve and off-reserve. That is all because of public policy. It was deliberate public policy to end those housing programs and offload it to the provinces. As a result, we have seen a dramatic increase in homelessness and lack of housing security.

As it stands today, about three million Canadian households live in housing insecurity, paying more than 30% of their income toward housing. That is the measure used by CMHC.

Canada is the only major country in the industrialized world without a national housing strategy. In fact, we have fallen far behind most other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, in our level of investment in affordable housing. We have one of the smallest social housing sectors now among developed countries. However, we still have tremendous expertise across the country in developing social housing and affordable housing.

We find that fewer Canadians are qualifying for the higher cost of home ownership. This issue really comes home to roost in an economic recession. People have failing mortgages. Some people’s financing was arranged through sub-prime mortgages.
Over the years, we have seen a very piecemeal approach to housing. While we saw a few initiatives in the late 1990s toward a homelessness strategy, there was never a recognition by the previous government, or the current government, that this was a mandate of the federal government.

The bill before us today says to the federal government that we must develop that national housing strategy and that we should work in partnership with the provinces, territories, Quebec, first nations and municipalities. A great amount of expertise exists, but it needs federal leadership and an overall strategy to ensure the resource is fully developed.

My will bill speaks to that. It calls on the minister to convene discussions with the various stakeholders to develop such a national strategy to ensure there is adequate housing. In this day and age, where we see such severe problems, this is very critical.

I know that in Quebec there have been some really excellent programs developed. I do want to acknowledge the very good work that has been done there over the years. We often point to Quebec as an example of what can be done in the development of good social housing and co-op housing.

I am hoping that if this bill can move forward on second reading and into committee, that we will have the support from the government, certainly from Liberal members, many of whom have a great interest in this issue, and also from members of the Bloc Québécois.

I do want to make it clear that my intent and commitment, should it go through second reading and into committee, is to ensure that there is an amendment along the lines that would recognize the unique nature of the jurisdiction of the Government of Quebec with regard to social housing in Quebec, and notwithstanding any other provision of this act the Government of Quebec may choose to be exempted from the application of this act, and should the development of a national housing strategy cause to be created a transfer of funds to the provinces and territories, the Government of Quebec may choose to be exempted from the strategy, and notwithstanding any such decision shall receive in full any transfer payment arising from the implementation of the strategy.

Now we are not at that point yet because we are talking about the development of a plan and a strategy, but I did want to make it clear to my friends in the Bloc that we are hoping for their support, recognizing the unique nature of the jurisdiction of Quebec.

I also want to point out that there are many initiatives underway across the country. For example, this Saturday in Vancouver there is a grand march for housing. This is organized by the city-wide housing coalition. It is really a manifestation of the incredible anxiety that people are facing. Certainly, within low income communities, like the downtown eastside, groups like the Carnegie Community Action Project have done a lot of work to draw attention to the housing crisis in that neighbourhood, a neighbourhood that I represent as a member of Parliament.

This is now a crisis that has gone right across the city. It is affecting renters in the west end, in Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, and South Vancouver. We have such a severe situation in Vancouver, with an almost zero vacancy rate, that people are now crying out for every level of government to see this as a key priority, not only socially in terms of providing for this most basic of human rights, the right to adequate shelter, but also as an economic stimulus. I cannot think of a better way to create good Canadian jobs than having a good investment in social housing.

In Vancouver, there is going to be a huge march with thousands of people in our city calling on all levels of government to work together. My bill today is an example and a reflection of what could be done if we have the will to do it.

I know that organizations like the Wellesley Institute and Michael Shapcott have done so much work on housing over the years. He has pointed out that hundreds of thousands who will experience homelessness this year will not get a single penny in desperately needed new programs and services. He again points out that three million Canadian households are precariously housed, which he calls a modern day record. He has expressed in his research, in the work that he does with organizations across the country, just how bad the situation is.

I think this is very alarming to people because we think of Canada as a wealthy country where these basic provisions of human needs can be met, and yet we have seen not only a growing gap between wealth and poverty but we have seen an abandonment of this most fundamental measure by the federal government.

We do think it is very important for the federal government to take up its responsibility as was called for by the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing. We have had visits by the UN rapporteur. He has issued reports that have in effect condemned Canada for the fact that it has not provided the kind of leadership for the provision of housing, particularly when it comes to aboriginal people.

I am very happy to read into the record statements made by the National Aboriginal Housing Association, which is an excellent organization that has done much work over the years to provide aboriginal housing. It points out:

Canada must put in place a National Housing Strategy; indigenous peoples must have a voice in developing such a strategy.
The proposed bill (C-304) includes a reference to, and a provision for, Aboriginal housing to be addressed, and calls for Aboriginal participation in developing a national strategy.

I would say that is absolutely right on. That is what the bill contains, so we are very pleased to see that the National Aboriginal Housing Association is supporting the bill.
We also received a letter from the mayor of Sudbury, John Rodriguez, who points out that he is pleased to lend his support to the bill and its objective, an effective housing strategy for Canada. He states in his letter:

Many years ago, the federal and provincial governments cooperated effectively to build affordable housing here in our community. Today, there is a crisis of homeless and housing stressed individuals and families in this city. The historic cooperation is needed again and the federal government has no real plan to address these challenges.

There it is. He hit the nail right on the head. There is no plan to address this crisis, whether it is in Sudbury, Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal or Toronto, which I know has had severe housing issues.

There is no question that this is something that is urgently needed.

During the last few years, we have seen some incredible leadership at the municipal level. We have seen municipalities go the distance using zoning, municipal land and incentives to develop social housing.

However, without the partnership of the federal government, without clear objectives laid out, as we used to have more than a decade ago, then all of these things become piecemeal efforts. We should be ensuring that the efforts of municipal governments, provincial governments, and the success of what we have seen in Quebec is something that we can strengthen and build on if the federal government was at the table.

Therefore, I am very hopeful that the bill that is being debated today for a national housing strategy for the development of such cooperation and partnership is something that can be and will be supported by members of the House.

I believe that when we talk to people in our communities, we see the dire circumstances that people are facing. I sometimes feel sick when I see people come to my constituency office and they have been on a waiting list for more than 10 years to get into social housing. It just seems so wrong for something so basic. When somebody puts their name on a list and they wait and they wait, they still do not manage to get into the limited housing that is there.

It is an issue of demand completely outstripping the capacity that we have. Therefore, it is very important that we develop this plan so that we can move on and begin to use the resources that we have to put such a plan into effect.

I want to thank the organizations that have been supporting the bill. I know that there will be more support coming in because it has gained a lot of interest across the country. This is something that housing organizations, like the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, the National Aboriginal Housing Association and others, have worked on year after year. They have never let it go.

There was a time when housing was not even on the national agenda. It is now. We are making this a political priority. We are saying front and centre that Canada’s record on housing is now abysmal. It is something that is an embarrassment in the international community as evidenced by the report from the United Nations.

I look forward to hearing from my colleagues in other parties about the bill today. We look forward to support of the bill, so that we can work on it in committee. I certainly want to say to our colleagues in the Bloc that we are committed to presenting an amendment that we think will make the bill acceptable in terms of the jurisdiction of Quebec, as we did with our child care bill and our bill on post-secondary education.

I want to see the bill go forward. There is more debate to be had. We want to see this plan go forward and I hope the members will support it.