Housing Policy Under Harper
Today I gave a presentation on Canadian housing policy at the annual conference of the European Network for Housing Research. Points raised in the presentation include the following:
-Fiscal context, more so than which party has been in government, appears to have shaped federal housing policy in Canada over the past two decades. Program expenses by the federal government (as a percentage of GDP) started decreasing steadily beginning in the mid-1990s and then increased steadily during the 2000s (up until the 2009-10 fiscal year). Federal spending initiatives on housing have generally followed this trend; they were relatively non-existent during the mid- to late-1990s, began again in 2001, and then picked up steam over the course of the ensuing decade.
-Looking back over the past several decades, it is rather clear that the role of the federal government has been crucial in the provision of housing for low-income households. When the federal government has led on that front, provinces and territories have followed (and housing has been built). During periods where the federal government has been inactive in funding housing for low-income households, very little housing has been built.
-Canada’s “rate of social renting” (i.e. percentage of households that live in social housing) is significantly lower than in most OECD countries. For example, the rate in both France and England is more than three times ours, and the rate in both Sweden and the Netherlands is more than six times ours.
-Though spending on housing has been higher under the Harper government than most observers would have ever predicted, it is important to be mindful of the looming issue of “expiring operating agreements.” Indeed, much of Canada’s social housing stock exists because of funding agreements that have been in place for several decades. Typically, these agreements were to last anywhere from 35 to 50 years, and have involved commitments from senior levels of government to fund operating costs (including the ongoing cost of hydro and maintenance). With much of Canada’s social housing having been built in the late 1960s, some of these agreements have already begun to expire; and many more agreements are set to expire over the next decade. The Harper government has been quite silent on what (if anything) it plans to do about this emerging problem.
-Expiring operating agreements will hit Canada’s northern territories especially hard, due largely to the fact that operating costs for housing in northern jurisdictions are higher than in other parts of Canada.
My slide deck for the presentation can be found here and the conference paper (whose first author is Steve Pomeroy) can be found here. The research is based on a chapter that will appear in the 2013-2014 edition of How Ottawa Spends, to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Nick Falvo is a Calgary-based research consultant. He has a PhD in public policy.