Only 5 per cent of Canada’s households live in non-profit housing or government housing – the smallest percentage of social housing of any western country, except the U.S. This is a growing problem for those too poor to pay market rates for shelter. Canada’s housing policy emphasizes ownership and about two-thirds of Canadians live in homes that they own, most often with the help of a mortgage. Since 1946, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has focused almost all public dollars and programs on subsidizing home ownership, with little help for renters or rental properties, even though most homeowners have double the income of renters. In recent decades, the gap between owners and renters has grown along with the increasing disparity in incomes of Canadians. In the 1960s, the gap between renters and owners was about 20 per cent. By 1999, the gap had ballooned over 200 per cent. Further, almost 20 per cent of renters live in housing that is overcrowded or needs major repairs. Ironically, much rental housing is poorly insulated; many landlords simply aren’t motivated to insulate if the tenants pay the bills. That not only creates a lot of greenhouse gasses but adds a lot of expense to the functional rent cost, especially when the heat is electric.Canada’s housing system is out of balance. Its reliance on market supply-and-demand works pretty well for homeowners, but even there we find growing problems. In many parts of the country housing prices are getting so high that it’s difficult to see how young people will ever be able to afford to buy a family home of their own. Renters are having even more trouble. Some parts of the population are inhibited from access to acceptable housing. At the worst end of the housing deficit, homelessness is growing.After 50 years of federal leadership, the 1996 federal budget shifted administration of federal social housing to the provinces and territories. This was not in response to a legal or constitutional dispute; it was unilateral policy decision by Paul Martin, to help save money and balance federal budgets on the backs of the provinces. Dismantling the federal social housing supply program meant that provinces and territories had to bear the direct responsibilities for housing costs, but also the indirect costs of inadequate housing and homelessness, such as the costs of physical and mental health care, policing, and emergency shelters.In theory, there is a constitutional barrier to direct federal funding to municipalities for housing. Nonetheless, in the 1970s, the federal government did directly fund new social-housing projects, like Castlegreen Housing Co-op in Thunder Bay, built by non-profit societies or non-profit housing corporations established by municipalities.After years of talk and a lot of promises, the 2004 and 2005 federal budgets did allocate some new funds for housing and municipal infrastructure, as a result of political and public pressure. While it was a promising start, there is a long way to go.Castlegreen is an example of one way we could choose to invest: a cooperative community of mixed income renters: safe, clean, green, with a wonderful sense of cooperation, pride, and belonging. In the absence of federal leadership and initiative, its time to bring back co-ops and other public partnerships that rebuild communities, provide lower income Canadians with healthy housing, and give children a quality environment to grow up in.I believe that there is an important federal role in helping to achieve more balance between both helping home ownership (a very good thing!) and safe, energy-efficient rental housing. I will be looking for such programs and funding in the upcoming federal budget. But what do you think? I’d like to hear your ideas at email@example.com.
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