A pro tip for public policy advocacy groups: If you’re looking for attention, it helps if your problem appears massively huge and your solution impossibly cheap—preferably less than a cup of coffee a week.
Addressing this issue in a recent conference, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) released a report declaring the issue of affordable housing in Canada to be “a national disaster, an epidemic, a crisis.” And the solution to this trifecta of doom? Why Ottawa simply needs to extract $2.04 per week from every Canadian. Coffee anyone?
Of course that initial $2.04 per week, after inflation and other escalators, works out to $44 billion spent on affordable housing over the next 10 years. And put that way, it seems a bit more daunting from a taxpayer’s point of view, especially when there’s very little governments can or need to do to fix Canada’s affordable housing crisis—other than get out of the way.
As with most social policy issues, it’s worth noting that homelessness and affordable housing are serious matters. Recent evidence reveals good results from getting people off the streets and into housing as quickly as possible, before tackling other problems, such as addiction or mental health. Even Ottawa now accepts the logic of what’s called Housing First.
But context matters. According to CAEH, the entire chronically homeless population in Canada is perhaps 4,000 to 8,000 people. Not to diminish the experience of living on the street, but is this a problem that warrants a $44-billion fix? And while the report focuses on convincing Ottawa to cough up the money to pay for a host of new housing options, the nub of the problem actually lies with other levels of government. The solution needn’t be any more expensive than changing a few laws.
At the provincial level, land-restriction policies such as the Agricultural Land Reserve around Vancouver or the greenbelt that surrounds Toronto need to be seen as deliberate efforts to limit the space available for new housing. While the declared reason for these sorts of policies is to protect farmland close to cities, the price is ultimately paid by the homeless. Declaring huge swaths of land off limits for development may mean cows within commuting distance of downtown, but it also artificially increases demand on the remaining land, leading to higher prices and rents, and fewer affordable housing options. Plenty of academic research proves a clear link between land-use restrictions and rising prices across all levels of the housing market. Want more affordable housing? Allow more houses to be built.
Municipal regulations are equally blameworthy for jacking up rents and denying low-income Canadians roofs over their heads. Consider rooming or lodging houses, which offer a room with shared facilities in a private home—a low-cost option for anyone on the knife-edge of homelessness, as well as for students and new immigrants. According to a report from Toronto-based social policy group the Wellesley Institute, “rooming houses are one of the most affordable private-market housing options for low-income tenants…. They represent both a step away from homelessness and a step towards stable and secure housing.” Rooming houses may be entirely consistent with a Housing First approach to ending homelessness, but they’re often at odds with local bylaws.
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Cities expend considerable effort banning rooming houses or attempting to regulate them into extinction. Toronto, for example, allows them in some parts of its downtown but not in its expansive suburbs, where large-lot homes are ideal candidates for conversion. While a few cranky homeowners may complain about the presence of such dwellings in their neighbourhood, rooming houses present an organic, market-based and highly effective solution to one of Canada’s trickiest policy issues.
So before anyone demands $44 billion from Canadian taxpayers to end homelessness, let’s first give the private sector a chance to fix this problem free of charge.