Canada’s National Housing Strategy
By Debbie Stewart, Vice President of Affordable Housing, CMHC
Housing is at the centre of a vigorous debate about the kinds of communities we want to have in this country. Daily headlines remind us of the affordability pressures many Canadians are facing, especially in Toronto and Vancouver.
In June 2016, the government asked CMHC to lead the development of a National Housing Strategy (NHS).
Over many months, we talked to provinces and territories, as well as hundreds of experts and stakeholders to get their input. We supported Indigenous groups in carrying out their own conversations, met with the mayors of our largest cities, and sat down with those who live our most difficult housing challenges: the homeless, people with disabilities, newcomers, low-income earners, seniors, survivors of family violence, refugees and veterans.
The vision we developed was simple: ensure that Canadians have access to housing that meets their needs and that they can afford. Building and executing that vision, however, is anything but simple.
We are a federal state and nothing gets done unless we work alongside our provincial and territorial partners. They played an integral role in shaping this strategy and will be crucial in delivering results to those who need them most.
We looked beyond our own borders to find successful housing policies and initiatives that could be successfully adapted here at home. We found these in recent programs from Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. We took the best ideas and key themes and began framing our Strategy. Then, we put up the walls, a roof, fashioned the interior space, and furnished it as a balanced strategy to serve our most vulnerable citizens. On November 22 last year, we threw open the doors on our new National Housing Strategy.
It is a 10-year, $40 billion dollar commitment – the federal government’s plan is to re-establish a leadership role in housing through key investments in social infrastructure that will help strengthen the middle class, promote inclusive growth for Canadians and lift more Canadians out of poverty. In 2016, 1.7 million Canadians were living in housing need, meaning that more than 30% of their income was committed to shelter.
The Strategy will lift 530,000 households out of need, help cut chronic and episodic homelessness by half, repair 300,000 affordable housing units and build 100,000 new ones across the country.
Let’s look at one example of a market where the NHS will make a difference: Vancouver is a beautiful, liveable city, but it has its challenges – affordability for one. In fact, a recent survey ranking unaffordable cities put Vancouver third – after only Hong Kong and Sydney.
Some of these challenges in Vancouver are market-based. They are linked to supply issues, high housing prices, high demand for rental housing and a correspondingly rock-bottom vacancy rate.
Vancouver is missing the ‘right’ supply to respond to its strong housing demands. Much of the construction is for one-bedroom or high end units. This is not ideal for residents who need family-oriented homes with three or more bedrooms or affordable rental units, more in line with their incomes.
Vancouver is also dealing with high housing prices sparked by demand from both residents and non-residents. Speculation in the housing market has also contributed to increased prices.
In the rental market, high demand has led to consistently low vacancy rates. With the price of homeownership steadily increasing, many prospective home buyers choose to stay in rental accommodation longer. Further, high levels of migration to Vancouver are placing greater strain on the already-limited supply of affordable rental units.
Homelessness, too, is a pressing issue that cannot be ignored. On any given night in Canada, 25,000 people are without a warm place to sleep. On a night in March 2017, the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association took a homelessness count: 3,605 in Metro Vancouver and an additional 606 people in the Fraser Valley Regional District.
This is unacceptable in a country as prosperous as Canada. When it comes to homelessness, a key component of the NHS is $2.2 billion over 10 years to help communities provide stable housing for those who are homeless. Our goal is to reduce chronic homelessness by 50%.
The NHS is primarily focused on helping those in greatest need. However, it includes tools, initiatives and investments that will benefit all Canadians, regardless of whether they are seeking temporary shelter, living in community housing, looking for an affordable rental or considering buying a home.
In addition to billions of dollars in investments to encourage the construction of new and repair of existing affordable housing, the Strategy includes new data and research initiatives to inform policy on affordable homeownership, urban planning and infrastructure spending. This will enable all levels of government to better address housing needs. All programs and initiatives will be flexible, developed with significant local input, to best tackle issues across the country – including high-priced housing markets like Vancouver.
We are already seeing this work in action in Vancouver. In February 2016, a 40-unit building opened its doors at 220 Terminal Avenue in the city’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The project’s modular units can be moved to another vacant site when the current land is needed for development. It was the first project announced under the Affordable Rental Innovation Fund and made possible through partnerships with the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA).
This is just one example. There will be more of these exciting partnerships and projects to come, as we continue to roll out the NHS in 2018. Working hand in hand with the provinces, territories, municipalities and housing partners, we will achieve better housing outcomes for Canadians.
Earlier this year, the federal government began consultations to support legislation promoting a human rights-based approach to housing. Future governments will be obligated to maintain a strategy that prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable.
At the core of the NHS is the idea of affordability as the key to increasing and maintaining a stock of affordable housing that will help alleviate supply challenges in some of Canada’s highest priced housing markets. We need a concerted effort involving all levels of government as well as the private and not-for-profit sectors to fundamentally rethink how land is planned, zoned and developed. We also need to work together to de-stigmatize the idea of renting. Remember: rent or own, it is still a home.
This shift in thinking supports the most vulnerable groups in our society by ensuring a greater supply of housing for low-and middle-income workers so that they can move closer to the jobs they want.
Through a combination of low-cost loans and contributions through the new National Housing Co-investment Fund, and existing Rental Construction Financing Initiative and Affordable Housing Innovation Fund, CMHC will make more than $17 billion available over 10 years. These investments will encourage other levels of government and the private and not-for-profit sectors to build new affordable housing, preserve the existing affordable housing supply, and develop new housing solutions.
The National Housing Co-Investment Fund represents our primary financial contribution to new housing supply. Through this Fund, we expect to create up to 60,000 new units of housing and repair up to 240,000 units of existing affordable and community housing. We are also supporting increased supply through the Rental Construction Financing Initiative, by offering loans to municipalities and housing developers during the earliest and riskiest phase of rental property development.
To maximize the impact of the Co-Investment Fund, over the next 10 years, the Government of Canada will transfer up to $200 million in federal lands to community and affordable housing providers, to encourage the development of sustainable, accessible, mixed-income and mixed-use communities. It was recently suggested that only cities are offering surplus land; we are doing our part too. Starting later this year, we will also provide funding for renovations, retrofits and environmental remediation to ensure that surplus federal buildings are suitable for use as housing.
The NHS is an ambitious plan and getting it right is a big job. As Canada’s authority on housing, CMHC is leading the way. Our goal is to be an organization that is innovative, gets things done and is admired by Canadians. Three years ago we took a hard look at ourselves and decided we needed to do things differently. We have undergone a difficult and liberating transformation in order to better manage housing risks and help Canadians meet their housing needs. Our team of 1,900 employees across the country now stands ready to help ensure that every Canadian has a home that meets their needs and they can afford.
The NHS is not just building housing – it is building communities where families thrive, where children learn and grow, where parents find the stability to succeed in the job market and where the elderly live in dignity. It is community renewal on a national scale.