The federal government will have to answer to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva for its failure to keep its promises to the international community around housing.
Michael Shapcott, director of affordable housing and social innovation at the Toronto-based Wellesley Institute, told the Georgia Straight by phone that in 2009 Canada made several pledges to the Universal Periodic Review process. This was created by the UN in 2006 to hold countries accountable for their human-rights records by forcing them to answer to questions from other countries.
In April 2013, Canada is scheduled to undergo scrutiny of its performance since the last review.
“[Canada’s] specific commitment was we recognize more needs to be done, we promise we’ll work with the provinces and territories, and we’ll come up with a strategy,” Wellesley said. “They’ve absolutely completely failed in that regard of having a strategy.”
The Wellesley Institute filed a five-page document with the Universal Periodic Review citing a litany of Canadian cutbacks to housing programs. It states that in 2009 the federal government announced $2.1 billion in new funding for affordable housing over a two-year period, plus another $5.7 billion for homeowners in middle- and upper-income brackets.
By 2011, these short-term measures were terminated, and there was a 39 percent reduction in affordable-housing funding compared with the previous year.
“Since most federal dollars were matched by provinces, territories, municipalities, non-profit and private housing organizations, the combined loss added up to more than $3.5 billion in one year,” the institute declares in the document. “Included in the federal cuts were: 97% cut in Affordable Housing Initiative (new affordable homes) from $452 million to $16 million; 94% cut in national low-income housing repair program from $674 to $37 million; 27% cut in on-reserve Aboriginal housing from $215 to $156 million; and, 5% cut in assisted housing from $1.7 to $1.6 billion.”
In addition, the institute revealed that a federal Crown corporation, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, will cut the number of households receiving assistance under federal programs by almost 100,000, or 16 percent, between 2008 and 2016. And CMHC’s expenditures on the Affordable Housing Initiative will fall from $582 million to $0 between 2010 and 2015.
In 1992, the year before Ottawa cancelled funding for new affordable housing, various levels of government contributed 0.57 percent of the gross domestic product to housing, according to the institute. Since then, there has been a “massive erosion in public housing spending and in legislated housing protection”.
“Fifteen years later, Canada’s GDP had doubled, but housing spending had shrunk to 0.29% of GDP,” the institute states in its submission.
Shapcott said that the international community doesn’t expect Canada to solve the housing problems of every citizen, but that it does expect things to improve. In 2009, the then–UN special rapporteur on housing, Miloon Kothari, reported that Canada was violating this notion of realizing progressive gains, and that things were in fact getting worse.
According to Shapcott, representatives of other countries have told him they’re “shocked” that Canada appears to be falling behind. They also can’t understand why Canada, unlike other industrialized countries such as the United States and Great Britain, has no national housing strategy in place to address this.
“One of the key things we want to say is not only is Canada failing to meet its obligations, but it’s also failing to meet its commitments it made last time around in 2009, when it was under the Universal Periodic Review,” Shapcott said.
The institute ends its submission with several recommendations to the Canadian government, including a call to “incorporate the international right to housing into domestic law” and to “immediately commit to renew and enhance the federal housing and homelessness programs that are due to expire in fiscal 2013”.
“Housing insecurity is widespread and homelessness is on the rise,” the institute states. “The impact is measured in poor health and premature mortality of the growing number of precariously-housed Canadians.”
Michael Shapcott will give a free public lecture on Canada’s housing policies and international commitments at 2 p.m. on Tuesday (November 20) at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in SFU Woodward’s.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.