Cities Call for Action - Ensure a Right to Home, Right Now

  • National Newswatch

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March of this year, the central prescription ordered by governments in Canada was to “go home and stay home”. Thousands of people housed in shelters across the country, living on the streets, or couch-surfing with friends or relatives, couldn't comply. Municipal governments were left to figure out what to do.Presented with an urgent challenge, we took decisive action through a range of measures. Despite our expeditious efforts, six months into the pandemic, there are encampments in many of our cities across the country and homelessness continues to be a challenge that must be addressed with urgency. Cities remain on the frontline of the country's homeless crisis. Not only is it catastrophic for vulnerable populations, it also severely constrains the capacity of our cities to economically recover.Homelessness did not start with the pandemic. It's been a growing reality for years, a manifestation of the broader housing crisis that has gripped Canada for some time. And it is likely about to become even worse, as temporary pandemic-related moratoriums on evictions are lifted, augmenting the threat of eviction and the rates of permanent homelessness. Unfortunately, this is happening at the same time as housing stock becomes more attractive to investors looking for the next 'safety deposit box' for their accumulated capital. If housing continues to be used as a financial instrument by the few, its scarcity makes it unbearably unaffordable for the many. And that is a problem for all.In this regard, we welcome the Government of Canada's commitment of $1 billion for the construction and acquisition of affordable housing through its newly announced Rapid Housing Initiative. And we appreciate the over $200 million to further support the Reaching Home program. Providing cities with access to capital to provide housing and supports for those without is absolutely necessary.The announcement by the federal government represents important first steps in addressing the current urgency that exists to meet the significant needs facing communities across this country.  With an estimated 235,000 people experiencing homelessness every year in Canada this announcement is welcome but must be followed in the short and long term with even more action if we are to successfully meet this challenge. The question remains, how do cities address the here and now needs of the homeless population while this program rolls out?Since June a number of municipal leaders and city staff have been meeting to develop solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis exacerbated by Covid-19. They have formed the Right to Home Municipal Working Group, recognizing that this moment has the potential to be the one that generates permanent, sustainable solutions and a vision for the future.The housing policy of the Government of Canada makes clear that housing is a fundamental human right. COVID-19 is testing our commitment to it. But, with crisis comes innovation and resolve. The federal government's announcement on Monday is a novel step in the right direction.  This commitment is significant and important, however to be truly effective in meeting current and forthcoming challenges, we recognize there is a need for more consistent and enduring measures by both the federal and provincial governments across this country. Canada's cities must be able to implement the right to housing through access to revenue tools and resources that match the urgency and importance of this human rights challenge. Otherwise, we risk our cities failing economically and socially.A unified national vision is possible, as we have clearly seen over the last months combatting COVID-19. As we continue to re-make our cities, the human right to housing compels us to: end the indignity of homelessness; enhance the protection of renters facing arrears and possible eviction, as well as small landlords disproportionately affected by economic hardship; assist people who have incurred household debt as a result of COVID-19 who may have trouble making rent; increase social assistance rates to cover the cost of living; examine existing real estate regulations to curtail predatory practices by institutional investors; and finally, communicate broadly that housing discrimination is illegal.The time for transformational change is now. Canada can uphold the values of sustainability, inclusivity and equality by solving this challenge. With proper support and interjurisdictional cooperation, we can be the local trailblazers in creating cities built for the 21st century that are economically productive and socially just. There is no simple solution. But our work through this pandemic has shown what is possible when people come together to tackle a specific problem. In the time ahead, no level of government will be able to afford the problem of not addressing the housing and homelessness crisis. We want everyone in every community to join us, through big or small acts alike, to take up the challenge of addressing this, because we all have the right to home.Co-Authors: Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, Toronto Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, Leilani Farha - Global Director of The Shift, Mary Rowe - President and CEO of the Canadian Urban InstituteThe authors are members of the Right to Home Municipal Working Group, which brings together elected officials and city staff from across Canada committed to securing the right to housing. It is convened by The Shift and the Canadian Urban Institute.