A project of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, which has a mandate to create 2,500 housing units on city-owned land by 2021. As of mid-2017, it has about 1,000 units at various stages of development. Photo from the Government of Canada/placetocallhome.ca

Editorial: Housing rights as human rights

  • December 1, 2017
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the government’s new housing initiative, even moreso than a multi-billion-dollar pledge, is recognition in Ottawa that every Canadian has a fundamental right to housing.

“Housing rights are human rights and everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home,” said the prime minister Nov. 22 when announcing an ambitious 10-year plan to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 per cent.

His words are music to anti-poverty and housing advocates whose cries for help have fallen for decades on tone-deaf ears. Proponents repeatedly urged Ottawa to adopt a human-rights approach to housing. Instead, Canada invested modest sums in housing as a chronic shortage ballooned into a crisis. So, yes, every Canadian deserves adequate shelter and it’s about time the feds took that obligation seriously.

Housing is a proven remedy to many of society’s ills. It contributes to a person’s dignity, health and safety, to their ability to hold a job and properly raise a family. Having a proper home also encourages civic engagement and community building. As Pope Francis has said, modern society can make “no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”

To his credit, Justin Trudeau agrees with the Pope. By equating housing rights with human rights he has acknowledged Ottawa’s social and moral obligation to regard this as a basic Canadian value. Still missing, however, is a real sense of urgency. The prime minister’s grand plan will be little more than a wish list until major funding kicks in after the next federal election in two years. Even then, hitting an ambitious overall goal of $40 billion is contingent on Ottawa persuading the provinces and territories to absorb a lion’s share of the costs.

So while this makes great headlines, time will tell how much of it actually will be achieved. But what can and should be implemented immediately is to enshrine in law an inalienable human-rights approach to housing. The Liberal initiative includes a laudable pledge to introduce legislation that will compel future governments to maintain a national housing strategy and to file reports to Parliament on “targets and outcomes.” This legislation needs to be comprehensive and have real teeth, and be drafted as fast as lawmakers can dance their fingers across keyboards.

The government’s housing strategy has much to praise, yet we remain cautious. In 1989, the House of Commons unanimously endorsed a motion to eliminate child poverty in 11 years, but today more than a million Canadian children remain in poverty. It would be doubly tragic if that failure was repeated on the housing file.

Still, by acknowledging that housing is a human right, Ottawa has taken an important step. Even if it is just the first one on a long road ahead.

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