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Canada's lack of national housing strategy targeted by Ontario court case

Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons

"We are the only country among developed western nations without a national housing strategy,” said Margot Young, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, and one of the Principal Investigators for the Housing Justice initiative.

As federal subsidies for social housing dry up in Ottawa, an Ontario Superior Court case aims to have the governments of Ontario and Canada provide a National Housing Strategy to combat homelessness and inadequate housing.

“It’s an interesting application, because it’s simply asking [the government] to put their minds to it and have a strategy.” Young said, noting that the federal government has been "resistant" to coming up with a nation-wide housing strategy so far.

Inadequate housing, Young emphasized, is a threat to both Canadians' health and their ability to fully participate in society. 

Lack of housing strategy in violation of Charter

In 2010, a notice of application was issued against the provincial and federal governments saying that “they were in violation of both international law, and against our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Section 7 and 15,” Tracy Heffernan, program director with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said.

The application asks the Superior Court to declare that federal and provincial governments' “decisions, programs, actions and failures to act” have caused situations “that lead to, support or sustain conditions of homelessness and inadequate housing.” 

If Ottawa continues to do nothing about affordable housing, results could be devastating, especially for people in British Columbia. BC currently has 14,500 co-op housing units, and about one-third will stop receiving subsidies between now and 2020.

Government inaction on housing could be in violation of Canadians' basic rights, the application argues. 

“Section 15 is in there because if you look at who is impacted by the current crisis of homelessness and inadequate housing, you see that it’s people from racialized communities,” Heffernan explains.

“It’s women, it’s aboriginal people, people who have physical disabilities and mental health issues.”

Heffernan was awarded a fellowship by the Law Foundation of Ontario for her work using a rights-based approach to address homelessness and a lack of adequate housing. As part of her fellowship, she is leading a directed research course for students at York University’s Osgoode Hall law school, exposing them to issues of poverty and homelessness.

Heffernan comes from a background where she did front line work as a lawyer for Legal Aid Ontario.

“What I saw was a major increase in homelessness, mostly for economic reasons,” she says. “So I started to think about what we might do about that, and gradually a coalition of people grew around the idea that we should do something.”

An important precedent for Vancouver? 

The case in Ontario sets a precedent that a similar case would be successful in British Columbia, and in particular Vancouver.

“[Vancouver ]provides a prime example of a microcosm of this issue around housing inadequacy,” Young explains. “We have in Vancouver a large homeless population, and we also have a housing market that’s gone through the ceiling, not just for home ownership, but for rental properties.”

She says that it’s not only the homeless population that would benefit from this case, but also working people living in poor housing conditions.

“There’s a larger group of people who have housing insecurities. They’re couch-surfing, they’re living in housing that’s cramped, that’s poorly maintained . . . they’re living in molding houses, they’re harassed by their landlords, they’re paying rent that’s disproportionate to the quality of housing,” according to Young.

She adds that the problem is not as visible as homelessness, but there are families living with poor housing “because of the amount rent takes out of their income.”

A set of potential solutions that could be implemented in the strategy, such as housing subsidies and rent control, explains Young.

“We want the court to say to the government that they need to bring in a National Housing Strategy,” says Heffernan. “And they need to do that in consultation with groups across the country who are affected by inadequate housing and homelessness, to develop a strategy to actually address this crisis.”

The Attorney Generals of Ontario and Canada have put forward a motion to strike the case, which will be heard in May 2013.

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