Commentary

Social Housing in Ontario: Picking Up the Pieces

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.

1990s Policy Reversal

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.

No Capital Funding

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".

New Initiatives?

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.

Tom Cooper is the Director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted March 25, 2008 at 20:11:37

This may be a dumb question, but why not pay or subsidize the rent for people who cannot afford decent housing?

Why do we have to force these people into ghettoes (read housing "projects")?

Why not save the millions of dollars needed to create and maintain a huge "social housing" bureaucracy, which obviously does not meet the people's needs?

Why not let people choose where they want to live (within a reasonable rental range)? They choose the building and the government pays all or part of the rent directly to the landlord, depending on the particular situation of each tenant. I am sure that there are competent lawyers who could draw up regulations that would be amenable to the tenants, taxpayers and landlords.

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By Tom (registered) | Posted March 26, 2008 at 20:33:08

It's not a dumb question at all Beancounter, in fact there's a movement- led by the Hamilton Affordable Housing Flagship - that is hoping to expand rent subsidies (and housing allowances) within the private rental market. The reality is that there's a 4000 family waiting list for rent-geared-to-income units for social housing units. People are in desperate need of affordable, safe, accessible housing. Currently there is a fairly healthy vacancy rate that allows for some tenant choice, but cost is usually a significant barrier for many low income tenants. Economic evictions are rampant in Hamilton right now.

Rent subsidies are also a good deal for private market landlords who may have significant vacancy rates in their buildings. Having said that, it would be incumbent upon the City to ensure that the landlords who receive rent subsidies have complied with any outstanding work orders and are "up to code" as Mike Holmes would say.

You're right, some social housing has been ghettoized and certainly would fit your classification. It has resulted in gang activity and other social problems. But the system is also to blame for allowing so many residents to exist on less than subsistence levels of income. There's certainly not enough social supports or an adquate police presence in some of those neighbourhoods. Although, again things are improving. There's some really good things happening in a few of those 'hard luck' neighbourhoods in Hamilton.

Other complexes though are a good mix of rent-geared-to-income units and tenants who pay market rents - experiences there are pleasant.

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted March 27, 2008 at 10:43:57

Can any legal experts explain how it is possible for one level of government to just "download" a program they initiated onto another level of government and expect them to pay for it? I understand this sort of thing happens all the time, but what allows them to do this? Seems irresponsible.

One would think both levels of government would have to agree on the download for it to proceed, and I can't imagine the municipal governments agreeing to take on a burden that their budgets are clearly not equipped to handle.

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By Tom Cooper (registered) - website | Posted March 27, 2008 at 12:44:46

I'm not a legal expert, I just work with them, but the various downloads from the federal government to the provinces were generally agreed to by the parties involved. The feds were interested in slashing their deficit; the provinces always want more autonomy. The Social Union framework that Jean Chretien and the Provincial Premiers agreed to in 1999 was perhaps the most prominent (in my mind the most insidious) of those agreements. It did create some national standards, but allowed provinces to maneuver out of some national programs as well. The downloading from the province was a different story. Municipalities are non-entities in our Constitution. Cities didn’t have any say when the Harris government either downloaded costs or forced amalgamation upon municipalities. The limits of cities are contained in provincial legislation – the municipal act and without the power to tax (outside of property taxes and some user fees) cities are generally beholden to whatever the province dishes out to them.

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