How would a National Housing Strategy impact our cities?

cross-posted from Spacing Atlantic

HALIFAX — National Housing Day was first marked on the calendar by a team of Toronto housing advocates on Nov 22, 1998. But this year, more than a decade later, it was infused with new meaning.

Housing is back on the national agenda, with proposed Bill C-304 calling for the development of a national housing strategy designed to ensure safe, adequate, accessible, affordable housing to all Canadians. The Bill, seconded by Halifax MP Megan Leslie, has deep implications for Canadian cities, and the diversity of housing challenges they face. â€œHousing impacts the health of communities,” says Leslie, who is the NDP critic for housing and homelessness. “It’s not just about putting a roof over someone’s head, it is about the health of a community general — the physical health, the mental health, the economic health of a community.”

The need for a national strategy was made amply clear at yesterday’s National Housing Day events in Halifax. Gathered at St. Matthew’s United Church, a crowd of over 100 marked the opening of the Out of the Cold emergency shelter for a second winter. A collaborative community initiative by the Metro Non-Profit Housing Association, Community Action on Homelessness (CAH), St. Matthew’s, and a dedicated team of volunteers, the shelter provides 15 beds for men and women.

A panel consisting of members of the organizing committee, housing advocates, and community members shared stories on why initiatives such as this one are so important in a city like Halifax, wrought with its own unique set of housing challenges. However, the grassroots, community-based strategy provokes conflicted feelings for many of those involved.

The fact that the shelter receives no support from the government is “the elephant in the room that we have to recognize,” said Fiona Traynor of Dalhousie Legal Aid. “It’s all being done by volunteers, and as great as that is, it’s still, in my opinion, a black mark on the federal and provincial governments.” This black mark is indicative of the need for a national strategy.

This small team of Halifax advocates are among many who have pointed out the need for national solutions. “If you look at what every single poverty group, what every single housing group is saying, they’re all saying we need a national housing strategy,” Leslie confirms. Everyone from the Wellesley Institute to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) to the UN has identified the existence of a national housing crisis, reprimanding Canada for being the only G-8 country without a national strategy.

As it stands, the Bill calls for the minister to work with provincial, Aboriginal and municipal representatives to draft the strategy. But the vital role of organizations such as the Wellesley Institute in consulting on the Bill and in its eventual implementation inspired an amendment to include non-profit organizations and the private sector in the drafting of the national strategy. The amendment will go to committee (HUMA) in early December.

This is crucial to Halifax advocates, who have their own local expertise to offer.  “When we talk about a national housing strategy we mean a strategy  first of all that is all the levels of government working together, led by the federal government,” explained panelist and CAH steering committee member Wayne MacNaughton, “and working with various members of civil society.”

The role of civil society is central to the interpretation and implementation of such a broad strategy, applying it appropriately in each local context.  In HRM, where the CAH’s Report Card on Homelessness reported that shelter beds were used over 52,000 times in 2008, the significance of a national strategy could be far reaching. â€œThis could have very direct impacts on Halifax, in that people would be housed in safe and affordable housing,” says Leslie. “That then impacts Halifax in so many other ways.  I believe it will have impacts on policing.  I believe it will have impacts on our health system.  I believe it’ll have impacts on our education system.”

While the Bill simply calls for the development of a national strategy, the content of such a strategy remains largely hypothetical, as does increased funding.

Nevertheless, it promises a much needed benchmark for Canada. â€œIt’s a touchstone to start working around and a base upon which we can start improving,” says Leslie. “It’s a piece to rally around, or mobilize community around,” After the committee meets in early December, Leslie hopes to get the Bill back to the House of Commons for a 3rd reading and vote before they break for the holidays. As yesterday’s National Housing Day events made clear, the rallying time is now.

photo by Hugh Pouliot