The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that adequate housing is essential for keeping people healthy and safe. Housing advocates from across Canada are hopeful that significant investments will be made in rent relief, urban Indigenous housing, the Rapid Housing Initiative, and supports for women, girls, and gender-diverse peoples in the 2021 federal budget.
With the federal government slated to unveil its 2021 budget next week, housing advocates from across Canada are hopeful for significant investments in affordable housing and financial support for marginalized and low-income tenants to prevent evictions into homelessness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequities in income, health, and housing among people living in Canada. In particular, low-income and already-marginalized tenants like women, Black and Indigenous peoples, persons of colour, queer households, and persons with disabilities have been hit hardest by job and income loss, and many of these residential tenants now face eviction due to mounting arrears (i.e. unpaid rent). It is estimated that over 250,000 units in Canada have accumulated over $350 million in arrears since the onset of the pandemic. These numbers are at crisis level and indicate that tens of thousands of tenants will be facing eviction into homelessness without immediate federal support.
In February 2021, the National Right to Housing Network (NRHN) and the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA)—in collaboration with over 120 tenant groups, academics, housing advocates, and peoples with lived experience of housing precarity and homelessness—released a federal submission and proposal for a Residential Tenant Support Benefit (RTSB) to address Canada’s mounting arrears and evictions crisis. This proposal was submitted to the federal government during their pre-budget consultation and received public support from hundreds of housing advocates within weeks via op-eds, social media, and letters sent to their Ministers.
This RTSB program would be relatively affordable and simple for the federal government to implement during this pandemic—all it requires is political will. It has even received support from Member of Parliament Jenny Kwan and Green Party leader Annamie Paul, both of whom called on the federal government and Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development, Ahmed Hussen, to immediately implement the Benefit and uphold the human right to housing as recognized under Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA).
Halting evictions means upholding the human right to housing
Passed in June of 2019, the NHSA recognizes housing as a fundamental human right and commits the federal government to progressively realizing the right to housing over time, in accordance with Canada’s international and legal human rights obligations. The proposed RTSB would ensure that the federal government stays true to these human rights obligations under the NHSA by helping marginalized tenants to avoid eviction. The United Nations has made explicit that evictions should not be carried out until all possible alternatives have been explored; the federal government therefore has a duty to explore and implement such alternatives—like the RTSB—to protect tenants from loss of home, dignity, and potentially life.
As Co-Chair of the Canadian Lived Experience Leadership Network, Al Wiebe, notes, “Loss of housing is terrifying beyond belief. Loss of housing while responsible for someone, like a vulnerable partner or child, is so traumatic that years later I still carry a deep internal fear of that happening again. Today I work as an advocate in the homeless sector… but the trauma of that time of eviction and following consequences set back my recovery for several years. One cannot underestimate the terror that eviction brings.”
While evictions under any circumstances are harmful, the drastic harms of accumulated arrears and evictions caused by the pandemic may not be obvious yet—but they are right around the corner. The Canadian government has certainly stepped up with Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Housing Benefit (CHB), but the reality is that these Benefits did not anticipate or address this upcoming eviction crisis resulting from the pandemic.
We are at the edge of a precipice. Now is the time for Canada to take action and implement rent relief mechanisms like the RTSB before thousands of individuals and families face eviction into homelessness, thrusting them into life-threatening circumstances and driving back much of the progress Canada has made towards addressing its housing crisis.
Under the RTSB, tenants who faced barriers in meeting rent during the pandemic—even after receiving supports through CERB, the CHB, or employment Insurance (EI)—would qualify for a Benefit payment to restore their rent-to-income ratio back to its pre-pandemic level. Essentially, this Benefit would use tenants’ rent-to-income ratio to ensure that rent makes up the same percentage of a tenant’s income during the pandemic as it did in 2019 by offering retroactive rental assistance to help tenants pay off arrears accumulated during the pandemic.
Given that rent was already unaffordable in many Canadian cities even before the pandemic, this RTSB is one necessary step towards keeping people across Canada healthy and housed—but this program is only one solution. Much more needs to urgently be done to end Canada’s housing crisis.
Advocates seeking long-term investments in housing
With affordable housing supplies dwindling across Canada, advocates are also calling for an expansion of the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI): a unique and highly effective program designed to bring new affordable and supportive housing onstream quickly. It has already created approximately 4,700 units of affordable housing, but has seen enormous demand that far exceeds the initial $1 billion made available to applicants. With an expansion of the RHI, more quality projects with funding and agreements already in place today can become affordable or supportive housing tomorrow.
Housing advocates are also calling on the federal government to offer funding specifically geared towards urban Indigenous housing providers who were left behind in the 2017 National Housing Strategy. This funding is particularly important in the context of the pandemic, during which Indigenous peoples have been disproportionately impacted by income loss and housing precarity.
Finally, the pandemic has exposed the severe need for supports for women, girls, and gender-diverse peoples facing domestic violence, housing precarity, and homelessness. While many advocates are calling for investments in childcare, the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network is also urging all levels of government to implement nine measures to protect women, girls, and gender-diverse peoples during the pandemic and beyond.
Housing is health care
What the pandemic has made clear is that housing is health care; it is a basic human right that all people require in order to live a life of dignity, health, and opportunity. We need to ask ourselves how people are meant to abide by “stay-at-home orders” and social distancing protocols when housing is more unaffordable and precarious than ever, and mounting arrears and evictions are launching people into homelessness at unprecedented rates.
If the federal government hopes to keep people in Canada safe and healthy during this pandemic and beyond, they must invest in a Residential Tenant Support Benefit, affordable housing, and supports for marginalized populations. This is what the NRHN and fellow housing advocates will be looking for on Monday as the federal budget is tabled.