Housing: Back to the Future

The NDP vision for Affordable Housing

   You know what’s good about the housing crisis?  We’ve all woken up to the fact that we have one.  Even the banks: an RBC report this September declared that Canadian housing affordability was at its worst level in nearly 30 years.  All of us are concerned now, and we have come to realize that no one sector is going to solve the challenges.  It will take us all — governments at municipal and band, provincial and federal levels, private developers and landlords, community and tenant organizations.

   Regrettably, as opinions about the crisis flew in the Legislature and on the streets in the past few weeks, there has been a tendency to lay blame on some particular factor — on immigration, Airbnbs, a job boom.  But the fundamental problem is not some recent phenomenon.  The truth is that we have housing shortages because for more than two decades both federal and provincial governments chose not to invest in housing; they quit backing provincial, municipal and other community efforts to provide accommodation.   We are now living with the consequences of that poor policy decision.

   There is a path forward to address the need — a wide one, with side-by-side room for all the players.  It’s not just a matter of one-off, quick-fix pieces.  What’s wanted is an over-arching strategy, one that has years-long vision for all aspects of housing — building, owning, managing and maintaining.  The core of that strategy lies chiefly in public, not-for-profit responsibility to provide for the future.

   The path forward actually uses the lessons of the past.  We need to get back to using the resources of all parties, not just the commercial, as government has done for twenty years, relying solely on private developers to supply the market.  The provincial government became the biggest landlord in the province, but it did not get past providing public housing for seniors and certain families.  It left it to private builders and managers to serve everyone else, according to market forces.  Except for some seniors units, PEI’s government has not built public housing since the early 1990s.  Rental supplements, the current choice of tactic, simply contribute to rising rents and do not get units built.

   So what’s the NDP concept of good housing?  It’s the idea of genuine neighbourhood: a healthy, inclusive mix of generations and household composition, with options that fit a broad range of budget, and suit people with different needs.  It has public transit.  It’s close to stores and services, and friendly to walkers, cyclists, wheelchair or scooter users.  Its buildings incorporate the best technology to reduce carbon footprint.  There’s green space, and there’s parkland close by.

   New Democrats believe in a chiefly public strategy, with these as the main prongs:

– The responsibility of the provincial government to lead, and to actually build and manage a number of affordable homes — as the Housing Corporation traditionally did for seniors — with various rental arrangements for a variety of clientele;

– partnering with the federal resources of CMHC;

– backing (money, expertise, facilitation), for municipalities, and also non-profit community groups (coops, Habitat, CMHA, even labour groups, for example), to construct and operate housing, so as to suit local needs and circumstances;

– continued encouragement for private developers to construct housing of various kinds, using results-related incentives such as tax advantage, to include types and income-levels which commerce doesn’t usually support;

– elected resident boards for on-the-scene management of public housing;

– a provincial land bank to acquire and protect land to be used for affordable housing;

– using statutory regulation to set rules about quality of construction and upkeep inspection, about quotas for affordable units within supported projects, about conditions for short-term rentals, and about tenant rights and other matters under the Rental of Residential Property law.

   Can we afford it?  The simple answer is that society can, and has to.  How could we not use our collective wealth to provide what is essential to health and quality-of-life for all our citizens?  To boost the revenue from current taxation, we can (as for hotels) apply a room tax and/or a portion of HST to short-term rentals, and use the commercial rate of tax for any operation which gets used for that purpose.  A program for investors, including immigrant investors, to put their money into 5-year affordable-housing bonds with a moderate yield of interest.  Where there’s a will, we can have the necessary, priority-targeted dollars.

   With its history of social-justice fairness and activism, and with the belief that housing is a human right, the NDP has a clear vision here … and the conviction that it can be done.  It’s time to get going, and get shovels in the ground.