New provincial investments are a start, but certainly more will need to be done to protect Ontario's aging social housing stock.
By Tom Cooper
Published March 24, 2008
A hallmark of Canada's contribution towards the emergence of the welfare state was the creation of public housing in cities across the country. Following the appearance of makeshift shanty towns during the Great Depression and the housing crisis that challenged returning World War II veterans, governments recognized the importance of building affordable and safe housing for families.
A national recognition emerged that there was always going to be a segment of the population who as a result of age or circumstance or disability or poverty could not afford either home ownership or the high prices of the private rental market.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was established and mandated to help manage the federal public housing stock.
The role the federal government took on in creating new public housing was joined by several provinces; the Ontario Government, through the establishment of the Ontario Housing Corporation, also starting building housing for the province's vulnerable populations.
In the 1960s and 1970s tens of thousands of public housing units were built. New non-profit housing projects were also initiated by community groups that attempted to provide mixed-income housing, combining rent geared-to-income housing along side units rented at market rates. This was an attempted to de-ghettoize social housing and to help foster a healthy social environment.
In the 1990s, things began to change. Along with the contraction of so many other programs that were integral to Canada's social fabric, in 1993 the federal government announced that it would no longer fund any new social housing construction. Five years later the feds offloaded the administration and funding of social housing to provinces.
In 1995 Ontario's newly elected provincial government cancelled the provincial housing program within two weeks of taking office. Both senior levels of government effectively washed their hands of social housing.
While there were still tens of thousands of public and non profit housing units in communities, no new units were being built and waiting lists for the rent-geared-to-income units became longer and longer.
Following the federal lead, the province downloaded funding and administration of all its housing stock (with the exception of supportive housing) to municipalities in 2000.
When the province downloaded responsibilities for community housing to cities, they refused provide financial resources to fund capital reserves. The social housing that was built in the 1960s and 1970s are in a critical state of disrepair - and cities were basically left to deal with the bills.
It is as if municipalities were forced to "buy a car without a warranty," noted Hamilton Housing Help Centre Executive Director Larry Huibers.
In Toronto alone, it is estimated that $300 million is needed from the province to effect significant repairs on social housing stock. Hamilton faces a lower, but no less onerous bill of $9.5 million a year for each of the next 20 years to make necessary repairs to its aging social housing stock.
These are not superficial concerns. People's homes are in need of plumbing, electrical and structural upkeep. According to the Save Our Structures, a tenants' committee advocating for the repair funding, tenants are living in some atrocious conditions.
Homes are in a critical state of disrepair. "Families are forced to live with chronic faulty wiring and plumbing, leaky ceilings, broken doors and windows, rundown playgrounds and unsafe entrance lobbies and public spaces".
Last week, the provincial government announced two important initiatives that may have some impact on encouraging repairs to Ontario's aging social housing stock.
A proposal to direct budget surpluses to municipal capital projects may have some positive impact on the repairs needed to social housing. But respected local housing and poverty advocate, Peter Hutton noted:
These dollars could end up being a political football at the local level since there won't be enough dollars to meet every need; and roads, bridges, city hall rebuilding, the Lister Block, sewer lines for the airport development, and so on will all be in a political competition. Housing advocates will have to fight for a share of those dollars.
As part of its ongoing poverty initiative, the Provincial Liberals announced they would specifically direct $100 million to immediate social housing repairs across the province. The investment, according to the government backgrounder, "will enable the repair of about 4000 units, helping nearly 10,000 Ontarians."
These provincial investments are a start, but certainly more will need to be done to protect Ontario's aging social housing stock. Safe, stable and secure housing provides the foundation for so much else: strong communities and strong economies.
The need is critical and immediate. As the Save our Structures, motto states: Everybody deserves a decent home.
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