Does your Member of Parliament support Bill C-304?

On Sunday, January 10, 2010 Libby Davies, Member of Parliament for Vancouver East, will start the Homelessness Relay Hunger Strike, a week-long fast to bring attention to the lack of a national housing strategy. For the past year different individuals have completed a week-long hunger strike initiated by Am Johal last year.Hunger Strike

While most of the individuals who participated in the hunger relay strikes have done it as a symbolic gesture to bring attention this important issue, Libby Davies has introduced a private members bill in the Canadian parliament to address the lack of a national housing program. The bill is C-304, an act to ensure secure adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians.

Though not well known, housing is a constitutional responsibility of the Federal Government. Before the 1993 the Federal Government built all kinds of housing in every province directly. They have the constitutional authority to do this unlike health care and education, which are considered provincial affairs. If the Government of Canada wanted to make an investment in health care this investment would need to be negotiated with the province, because the province has the constitutional responsibility for delivery of these programs. This is not the case with housing. This means there is a strong argument that the Federal Government of Canada must play a key role in solving homelessness. They certainly have played a key role in alleviating homelessness in the past; unfortunately, they have played a key role in producing the current crisis too.

The National Housing Act and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) were both created to give the federal government the capacity to provide a national housing strategy. Since the inception of CMHC, the federal Government has built some 600,000 units of housing in this country. Importantly here, the housing crisis that Vancouver is in the midst of now is the direct result of the significant funding withdrawal to CMHC earmarked to build social housing and to fund co-ops. The policy decisions to stop funding a comprehensive housing plan, was done as cost cutting measure to balance the deficit by the Liberal government through the 1990’s. More importantly, it was done in the mistaken belief that the market would provide housing for everyone. This belief has proven false, as we here in Vancouver can attest to, day in and day out.

In 2005 the City of Vancouver unanimously passed the Homeless Action Plan (HAP). The Housing Centre of Vancouver, an official body of the City of Vancouver, developed the HAP. The plan presents a detailed analysis of the homelessness problem and concludes that homelessness is a result of a complicated mix of policy failures, but highlights the withdrawal of funding to the CMHC. The HAP plan also acknowledges the importance of protecting, and increasing, the existing stock of rental housing. The plan then lists 87 recommendations to all three levels of government, to foundations and to community groups. HAP utilizes a notion of ” Three Ways to House:” to solve homelessness (i) income must increase, (i) there must be an increase in social services attached to housing for some folks, and (iii) there must be an increase in the number of available units to house folks.

Given the complexity of the problem and the number of overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities, the HAP stresses that one of the first steps in solving homelessness is the need for a shared consensus on solutions. Indeed, the HAP offers a common direction forward for all the different levels of government. However, in addition, all levels of government, policy makers, business, faith-based communities, academics, students, community groups, foundations and citizens must share a vision of how to tackle this problem. Importantly, a shared consensus is a powerful message to society when it is presented by business, by government and by citizens. When church folks, business leaders, activist, municipal governments, provincial governments, activist, foundations and community groups all demands for the same things, the Prime Ministers must listen. At the local level there may be much that divides many groups and segments of society, but when we approach the federal government the City should speak with one message.

In July 2008 city staff reported back to the Council on the status of the HAP implementation. This report evaluates which of the 87 recommendations have been implemented, what is still ongoing and what still needs to be done. The report notes that, at the federal level, there is still much to be done to create a national housing strategy.

A more detailed proposal that goes into greater detail on what the Federal Government could to do to built more purpose built rental housing is available at:CoV Housing Centre and select 2007/07/12 Homeless Action Plan: Proposed Federal Tax Changes (Downloadable PDFPDF, 22KB)

Canada is a signatory to the UN Charter of Human Rights. Article 25 of this Charter states that every human being has the right to shelter. However in Canada we have no plan to house everyone; we have no comprehensive housing policy. This should be a national shame. Of course this is not our country’s only failure, but we should pause to consider the moral and ethical situation we are party to where, for example, resources are expended on “nation building” in Afghanistan while we have folks, many folks, living on our own streets.

At this time there is a historic opportunity to operationalize Canada’s international commitments to house everyone in the country. Libby Davies’ private members Bill C 304 is “An act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians” and has passed second reading in the House of Commons. While the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, has used the cynical and undemocratic tactic of “proroguing parliament”, what is little known is that private members bills do not fall off the docket and continue on in the process in the parliament. Now, with the House of Parliament prorogued Members of Parliament will have lots of time to speaking with their constituents and this would be a good time for folks to ask their MP if they support Bill C-304.

I would like to acknowledge the research of J. David Hulchanski, Director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies, whose work has greatly informed my thinking on the role of the Federal Government in housing. Professors Hulchanski’s article “What Factors Shape Canadian Housing Policy?
The Intergovernmental Role in Canada’s Housing System” is must read for anyone interested in housing issues.Professor Hulchanski’s paper

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