Reflecting on National Housing Day

Written by Andrea Nemtin, CEO, SI Canada

Yesterday was National Housing Day. 

I had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I am glad to see increasing support from national, regional and local governments to address our housing crisis, and the stated willingness by developers, housing providers, financiers, philanthropists and others to collaborate in new ways to develop innovative approaches and create a systemic change; I am heartened by the acknowledgement of the confluence of economic, policy and cultural factors and failures that make up the root causes; and I believe there is a genuine desire to try and ensure that everyone living in Canada has a place to call home.

And yet the disappointed faces of the local housing community in Hamilton, where we are hosting a Transit Oriented Affordable Housing Lab, have stuck with me. Their discouraged looks when I had to say  “Everyone wants to help but we don’t have the money just yet.” This was after months of work, a long day of talking about new ways to fund thousands of units along the city’s transit corridors, and a presentation of CP Planning’s Roadmap for Redevelopment to address Systemic Racism. We still don’t have access to the $600,000 they need as a start to transform commercial space into 10 family units for women fleeing violence, nor do we yet have the $7 million needed to create 40 units that would bring Indigenous residents out of the encampments, or the $2 million to preserve housing currently being used for emergency shelter by the City. Everyone in the room is doing what they can – from the City working on zoning, to the Hamilton Community Foundation, the CMHC, Infrastructure Canada, the Community Benefits Network and the Credit Union. Each is trying to change the way they work to be part of the solution: the solution that will move 2000+ unhoused and precariously housed individuals and families into homes along the transit corridor.

I reflected on this during my long rainy drive back to Toronto, as I listened to the commentary on the Fall Economic Statement. $16 billion in funding for housing – and yet I had to say sorry to $600,000.  

My next stop was a reception being held by the Mayor of Toronto. Wine and celebration, again, everyone working to help, accelerating approvals, $47 million of new funding, an acknowledgement of non-market housing as a driver of the solution, and the need for partnerships and collaboration. We can do it! And developers can make money while we do!  

And then, as I hovered for my turn to meet the mayor, I overheard the woman in front of me talking about the number of people who come to her drop-in centre with nowhere to go at closing time. She can provide a bus ticket but to where? From the work of our friends at Progress Toronto, we know the shelters are overflowing, that hundreds of people sleep on the street every night including refugees and asylum-seeking families who fall through the cracks of traditional settlement services. Welcome to Canada! There are currently 85,464 people on the waiting list for social housing in Toronto, over 20,000 of these are families, and over 35,000 are seniors.  

From SI Canada’s work on the Financialization of Housing with the CMHC and all that we have learned from our colleagues at HART, the Community Housing Transformation Centre, the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative, the National Housing Accord,  and many others, we know this problem took forty years to create. 

There is a combination of systemic, structural and cultural challenges around how money flows and policies are made, and in a democracy, these take time to undo.

We also now know what many of the solutions are. At the highest level, I am quite convinced that there are clear solutions which could transform our country for generations to come. There is a general consensus that assisted living and supportive housing need stable and adequate funding to support the most vulnerable. Housing cannot be fully separated from other needed supports, and these need to be paid for. We have heard time and time again that we cannot solve funding problems with financing solutions.   

We also know there is a need to grow our non-market housing sector from 3.5% to 20%

We need to preserve our existing units and build or buy 3 million more. The supply challenge is about a certain kind of supply – this is an important distinction. This is a trillion-dollar problem that cannot be solved with funding alone, and, frankly, shouldn’t be. It makes sense to finance capital and infrastructure investments, and housing is social infrastructure.   

There are many proven financial tools for affordable and non-market housing. My three favourites are Social Bonds, Revolving Funds and Community Bonds. The first allows governments and quasi-governments to raise funds on the public market. Similar to green bonds, and differentiated from SIBs, Social Bonds are part of the Sustainable Bond framework and are a powerful tool for municipalities. Toronto is the first to employ them in Canada. The revolving fund is an ideal tool for creating place and thematic-based investment funds.  Seeded by an initial infusion of non-repayable or non-interest-bearing capital from governments, they are an effective way to leverage private investment from philanthropic and institutional investors. The last structure is a community bond which allows individual residents and foundations to invest in local projects. These three tools can be used separately or together.

I know this won’t help the folks who have nowhere safe and warm to sleep tonight, so in the short term, I will support a local shelter. I know it’s a tiny drop in the bucket and not nearly enough.  I hope that next year I can celebrate some progress and that National Housing Day will be happier for more of us.

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