Presentation to the Community Services Committee (January 13, 2015)

delivered by Richard Walsh, Alliance Against Poverty

Listen to the audio file: https://clyp.it/aq2mtjcr

         Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the Region’s Affordable Housing Strategy. I’m Richard Walsh, Professor of Psychology at a local university and a member of the local group, the Alliance Against Poverty, known as AAP, which has made previous presentations to Council.

         Since the summer, most Out of the Cold programs collapsed, which showed how dire the need is for more social supports for the homeless. But today I want to call your attention to bolstering the range of housing options in Waterloo Region for low-income individuals and families and for the homeless. The frigid weather makes this urgent, when we recall that two individuals in Toronto recently froze to death, because they had no shelter. But we in AAP are aware that the inadequate housing options in this Region are remediable, because we know that at least two Canadian municipalities – the City of Vancouver (pop. c. 600,000) and Medicine Hat, Alberta (pop. c. 61,000) – ensure that their most vulnerable residents, the homeless, have safe and secure housing. If these municipalities can do it, so can we, despite the facts that Canada has no national housing strategy and the Chretien-Martin governments chopped the social transfers to the provinces, which crippled social housing.     

         Now, maybe from your perspective the last decade has been a success story for affordable housing. In 2001 the Regional government committed to build 1000 new units of affordable housing by the end of 2005. Then in 2005 and again in 2008, 500 units were added to the original goal. By the time you released your “Renewing Our Commitment” report this past May, over 2000 units had been added over 13 years. But from our perspective, your renewed commitment is good, but inadequate [I’d give it a C+], because it falls far short of meeting the basic need, namely, affordable housing for all the Region’s residents, which is a human right. And the lack of safe, secure, and affordable housing has very significant social side-effects, as you point out in your “Region of Waterloo Comprehensive Approach to Poverty Reduction.” I quote: "The financial costs of poverty, both direct and indirect, can impact areas such as health care, policing and corrections, and lost potential. The bottom line - we can’t afford poverty." We strongly agree.

         Now I turn to the problems that we see in your housing plan.  

         First, consider your goal of building 350 new units and retaining 350 old units through 2019: Despite the over 2000 new, affordable housing units added, the waiting list for affordable housing has remained relatively stable at approximately 1200 families. Obviously, there is a growing demand for affordable housing, which will continue to expand as the population increases. Decreasing the rate of new units reaching the market during this time of austerity budgets and precarious employment surely means that the Region will fall farther behind in meeting housing needs and that the waiting list for affordable housing will escalate.

         Secondly, your May 2014 “New Affordable Housing Strategy” doesn’t make any clear spending commitments for affordable housing. You highlight that for every $1 spent by the Regional government, $12 were leveraged from other sources, for a total of only $14.8 million in capital expenditures since 2001. Spending $14.8 million on affordable housing, not annually, but in total over 13 years, is pathetic, given the escalating needs, especially when compared to the  police budget that is now greater than $140 million annually. Webelieve you should rearrange your priorities and “put your money where your mouth is,” that is, make a concrete monetary commitment that reflects a robust, affordable housing strategy that does not rely chiefly on the dubious financial support of provincial and federal governments.

         Of course, we also recognize how important ample federal and provincial financial support is in developing a strong housing strategy for our Region. However, to repeat, your proposed AHS does not fully address [1] our Region’s affordable housing needs, [2] the range of housing types required (emergency shelters, supportive housing, and affordable housing mixed with market-rent units), or [3] the location of affordable housing. As I stated to you last year, along the LRT route is “where people who are dependent on transit need to live. Improved transit won't help lower-income people the way it should, if they can't afford to live near it. Both affordable housing and affordable public transit are essential to eliminate poverty.” Instead, your AHS proposal simply sets a “realistic” goal based on uncertain funding. Clearly, the proposal needs serious re-thinking. Here’s our advice:

         [1] Re-evaluate the goal set forth in the new AHS, i.e., 350 new units. The goal should be to reduce the size of the waiting list and should not be constrained by the availability of funding. The housing needs should determine the funding required, not vice-versa.

         [2] Make a monetary commitment to support the goals of the new AHS. While the commitment might be relatively small, say $2 million, it will be symbolic. Housing should be your priority and should be reflected in the budget. Practically, committing housing funds now might help during years if there’s a shortfall in federal or provincial funding.

         [3] Instead of simply noting insufficient federal and provincial support, you and your colleagues on Regional Council should advocate for housing. Pass a resolution on the need for a national housing strategy. Then the Regional Chair and this Committee should convey the resolution to the four MPs who represent us in Ottawa. Tell the federal government to reorganize their budget to ensure that a national, publicly supported, housing strategy materializes so that everyone can experience safe, secure, and affordable housing. This step is crucial, because local and regional planning is weakened when funding is uncertain.

         Now, there are three other, practical housing matters:

         [1] Wherever new affordable housing is built, mix affordable units with market-rent units, and build mixed-rental housing in locations accessible to food shopping and health care.

         [2] A small-scale landlord who has intimate acquaintance with the stresses on low-income tenants reported to us the following easily solved problem. As I said last year, “individuals are eligible to receive last month's rent in advance only if they are discharged from a shelter, psychiatric ward, or jail. In effect, individuals must be institutionalized before receiving last month's rent to move into an apartment. In our view, this policy obstructs finding affordable and safe housing.” So, please correct this unjust practice by expanding the criteria for obtaining last month’s rent.  

          [3] The last practical matter concerns GRT. As I noted last year, GRT's business-plan of recovering ever more of its operating costs from the fare box is unaffordable for the poorest who simply can't afford any increases in the cost of bus tickets and passes, because subsidized bus-passes are in very short supply, people living on social assistance receive extremely low payments that increase only 1% annually, and the minimum wage has been frozen for years.

          GRT should provide free bus-passes for individuals receiving Ontario Works and subsidized passes for individuals receiving ODSP. In addition, GRT should greatly broaden subsidized passes, because some individuals who are not on ODSP also need subsidies for bus fare. These subsidies should come out of the GRT budget and not out of the funds for Discretionary Benefits, which the poor sorely need for food and housing. Lastly, GRT should make a small route-change in the bus line to the Food-Bank pick-up so that people can access it much more easily and safely. If you have ever tried carrying a box of canned goods up and down the street on the way to a bus stop, you’d realize what a hardship the current bus route is for people who depend on the Food Bank.

          To sum up, affordable transit and affordable, safe, and secure housing across the range of housing types (i.e., emergency shelters, supportive housing, and affordable housing mixed with market-rent units) are essential. Councillors, do the right thing for the less fortunate in Waterloo Region!

          Thank you.