Saturday, June 22, 2024
June 22, 2024

Academic expert illuminates Canadian housing crisis

One of Canada’s leading academics on housing, homelessness, inequality and social protection gave a capacity crowd at Mahon Hall a truck full of building materials for understanding our country’s housing crisis at a Salt Spring Forum event on Jan. 14.

Alison Smith, an associate professor in the faculty of political science at the University of Toronto, said her interest in the issue of homelessness was sparked by a field trip to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside while she was a masters student under Michael Byers, Salt Spring Forum co-founder and UBC political science professor. Byers also moderated the event.

Smith detailed how the loss of federal government funding for housing in the 1990s and lack of leadership at the provincial government level across Canada was largely responsible for the state we see today.

“This is what happens when you try to create the conditions for the market to develop an inclusive, equitable, fair housing market. It doesn’t happen without senior government investment, with all of their resources, and we haven’t had that for a long time,” she said.

Smith contrasted that with Finland’s situation, which has longstanding experience with ensuring all of its citizens are housed.

“It’s always held up as a country that has ended homelessness; the only country that has a really long-term sustainable response to all different forms of homelessness,” she said, explaining that “about 20 years ago they responded really quickly when they saw increasing housing insecurity, not just in the big city of Helsinki but elsewhere.”

Smith said Finland has advantages in tackling the problem by having a smaller population, a unitary governance structure without provincial governments — which makes policy implementation easier — and a more generous welfare state. Finland has much more social housing, prioritizes early intervention and has solid information about what kind of housing is needed.

She said someone coming to Canada from Finland would tell us, “It doesn’t have to be like this. We’ve got some roadmaps for what can be done differently.”

The federal Liberal government’s National Housing Strategy, pledging more than $82 billion in funding over a 10-year period from 2018 to 2028, is laudable, she said, but there are concerns about if and how the money will be spent.

“It needs to be going to the communities and to the Indigenous-led organizations and municipalities and the housing providers that have the expertise and know what needs to be done and how to do it.”

Smith said the current B.C. NDP government is “the clear innovator, the clear leader” in Canada in trying to tackle the lack of housing, with other provincial governments watching how it plays out.

“This provincial government is doing more certainly today, and historically, than any province has done in terms of trying to intervene in the housing market,” she said.

When asked by audience members what people could do at the local level, Smith stressed the importance of advocating to all levels of government to take measures needed and to ensure that announced funding translates into housing units where and for whom they are needed.

“There are a lot of complexities, but at the end of the day, it’s actually frustratingly simple what it is that needs to be done . . . ultimately, it’s a tremendously reasonable thing to ask for everyone to have access to the type of home that they would like to live in, to have some type of choice in terms of where they’re living and to make sure that that’s safe. That’s not asking too much.”

Forum event tickets sold out several days in advance, attesting to local interest in the subject. People who have been advocating for local housing solutions and people living outdoors were among those in the crowd. They also set up a warming space outside the hall.

Smith is the author of Multiple Barriers: The Multilevel Governance of Homelessness in Canada.

For more reading on the issue, Smith recommended Gregory Suttor’s book called Still Renovating: A History of Canadian Social Housing Policy. She also pointed to David Wachsmuth, Canada Research Chair in Urban Governance at McGill University, as the expert on the impacts of short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb.

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