Ottawa sits down at the housing table

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The good news about Justin Trudeau’s announcement of a national housing strategy is that it signals Ottawa has finally taken a seat at the housing table. That seat has been empty since the Chrétien government downloaded nearly all housing responsibilities to the province back in the ’90s. It was an abrogation of federal responsibility at the time and amounted to nothing more than the feds shifting the cost burden to make its books look better.

To the extent that the announcement means Ottawa is once again fulfilling its responsibility to this critical issue (Canada is among the only developed countries that doesn’t have a housing strategy) it is very good news.

However, once you shine a bright light on the details of the strategy, some flaws become visible.

In terms of a tangible investment, the government deserves credit here. In 2016, Ottawa spent $15 million in new funding on housing. In 2018-19, that investment will grow to $1.5 billion, and it will continue to grow up to $3.4 billion by 2027. No question, the government has shifted trajectory away from ignoring the housing file.

The strategy has the ambitious goal of cutting chronic homelessness in half in the next decade. Critics point out that doesn’t help the other half, and that’s a fair point. But it’s a big step in the right direction. It also makes economic sense when you consider that it costs more to keep homeless people in shelters than it does to help them find and hold on to safe and decent housing.

A cornerstone of the strategy is a $2-billion commitment to provide a Canada Housing Benefit to low-income families and individuals. If provinces and territories match that — a condition of the program — it could assist up to 300,000 vulnerable households. But there’s a rub here.

The money won’t flow until 2020-21. That’s after the next election. Why? The need is real, pressing and immediate. The fact that the Liberals have turned it into what amounts to an election promise gives it a partisan taint, as in, “vote for us and you get this, vote for the other guys and …”

Some other features of the strategy: $2.2 billion to the homelessness partnering strategy due to end in 2018-19; $4.3 billion for a Canada Community Housing Initiative to provinces and territories to support housing efforts; new legislation requiring future governments to maintain a national housing strategy; creation of a housing advocate’s office and targeted support for Indigenous people living off-reserve.

The strategy has been greeted with solid support across the spectrum, as it should be. But contrary to the government hype, it’s not perfect. The aforementioned delay in implementing the housing benefit means vulnerable families will suffer for longer than they need to. And the fact that it rolls out over 11 years means many other badly needed features of the strategy won’t be in the field although the need is immediate.

Full marks though to Trudeau and his government for keeping this election pledge to get Ottawa back at the housing table.

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