By Kaite Burkholder Harris, Jennifer van Gennip, and Daphna Nussbaum, OAEH co-chairs
National Housing Day commemorates the recognition, over twenty years ago, of homelessness as a national disaster. It’s a day to ask the obvious question: In a country as rich as Canada, how can 235,000 people experience homelessness every year?
It’s a day to remind ourselves that our housing crisis is the result of politicians’ decision to stop investing in affordable housing in the late 1980s.
It’s also a day to put all politicians on notice.
On June 21, 2019, we watched history in the Senate as the National Housing Strategy Act received royal ascension. It was official: the federal government now recognized “the right of every Canadian to access adequate housing.” This Act finally brought Canada’s laws in line with its international commitments, having signed on to housing as a right in various United Nation treaties since 1948.
But what does it mean for housing to be a human right?
According to the United Nations it requires the government to implement reasonable policies and programs, within available resources, to ensure that all people have access to housing within the shortest possible time. It also means that priority must be given to those who currently have no housing. It doesn’t mean that governments have to house all citizens overnight, but it puts the responsibility on the government, not the individual in a housing crisis, to prevent homelessness.
Across Ontario, the rents are too high, corporations buy up single-family homes with impunity, and over 105,000 people are at risk of eviction through COVID-related arrears alone – a crisis entirely out of peoples’ control.
When we see the system at work, it becomes clear that housing loss is a serious human rights violation that demands urgent action. We have a profit-driven housing market, where real estate becomes a place to accrue wealth. When faceless corporations are the landlord, more accountable to investors or shareholders than tenants, affordable housing options become few and far between.
Michèle Biss, project manager for the National Right to Housing Networ, is recently quoted as saying the right to housing is “a way for us to shift the power dynamic and shift it away from real estate investment trusts, away from the high-investment actors, the high-income folks, to people who can’t afford housing.”
Leilani Farha, former Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, in discussing Berlin’s recent referendum to appropriate housing as a social good says, “Law is not meaningful unto itself. Law is only meaningful when people take it, use it, and run with it.”
Realization of a “new” human right is bound to be a gradual process, and there are important steps for the federal government to take. But in order to end homelessness and recognize everyone’s right to housing, the provincial and municipal governments will need to participate as well. All levels of government share an obligation to prioritize those most in need.
Housing affordability dominated the federal election, and we, the Ontario Alliance to End Homelessness, will be doing everything we can to make sure it is a defining issue for the provincial election as well. We won’t be settling for platitudes about savings programs or grants for first-time homebuyers, either. We want to see housing recognized as a right, and we want to see a credible plan to end homelessness. One that puts people first, and doesn’t allow a few to build wealth in the housing industry while thousands sleep outside or in shelters.
National Housing Day is also a day to centre the voices of those who are being denied this right, so we’ll give the last words to two individuals with lived expertise in being unhoused: “We can build our communities better. We can embrace our neighbours at every stage of their lives. We can ask for expanded services in our neighbourhoods when we see a growing need. We can smile and say good morning to our neighbours, no matter where they live. We can stop asking our neighbours experiencing homelessness to get off our streets or leave our communities. We can ask instead that they have access to the basic human right of a home in their neighbourhood.”