Federal Liberals on housing: then and now

The Wellesley Institute blasts the federal Liberals on housing:

Earlier today, the Liberal Urban Communities Caucus released a powerful report condemning the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, and calling for strong action.

Eighteen years ago, almost to the day, the National Liberal Caucus Task Force on Housing released a powerful report that condemned the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, and called for strong action.

Liberal Urban Communities Caucus (May 28, 2008): “Prime Minister Stephen Harper has told Canadian municipal leaders in the clearest terms not to expect any help for any of their problems from the federal government. With a shrug of his shoulders, the Prime Minister has abandoned Canadian cities. We believe  this lack of leadership from the current federal government will cause serious harm to the Canadian economy and the lives of all Canadians.”

National Liberal Caucus Task Force on Housing (May 14, 1990): “The federal government has abandoned its responsibilities with regard to housing problems. The housing crisis is growing at an alarming rate and the government sits there and does nothing; it refuses to apply the urgent measures that are required to reverse this deteriorating situation… The federal government’s role would be that of a partner working with other levels of government, and private and public housing groups. But leadership must come from one source; and a national vision requires some national direction.”

While the two reports strike similar tones even though they are eighteen years apart, the specific recommendations are somewhat different.

The Liberals in opposition in 1990 were a bit more bold in recommending new investments (for instance, in 1990, the Liberals called for the funding of 5,000 new co-op homes annually even as the Conservative government was shutting down the national affordable housing program).

The Liberals in opposition in 2008 don’t make a strong pitch for new investment. Instead, they call for lots more consultation (such as annual meetings between the federal cabinet and municipal leaders) and “steady-as-she-goes” spending (such as “maintain funding for housing” even as the Liberals condemn the Conservatives for not making adequate investments).

Why the dampening down of recommendations, even as the passion remains strong? The Liberals in government from 1993 to 2006 had a great deal of difficulty in meeting the promises that they set out in their 1990 task force report. They failed to restore the slashed investments in affordable housing for which they condemned the Conservative government and they failed to make the new investments (such as the promised 5,000 new co-op homes annually).

In the 1996 federal budget, delivered by then-Finance Minister Paul Martin, the Liberal government announced plans to download most of the federal housing programs to the provinces and territories, which left Canada as the only major country in the world without a national housing strategy. In 1998, the Liberal government “commercialized” Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation – the federal government’s national housing agency – with radical changes to the National Housing Act.

After the mayors of Canada’s biggest cities declared homelessness a “national disaster” in 1998, the Liberals announced a series of bits and pieces – some money for homelessness here, some money for housing rehabilitation there.

Finally, in 2001, the feds signed the Affordable Housing Framework Agreement with the provinces and territories. Under this deal, as it evolved, the federal Liberal government agreed to put $1 billion over five years into new affordable homes and the provinces and territories were supposed to match that funding for a total of $2 billion nation-wide. Not enough, but a very good start.

Unfortunately, the 2001 agreement was so clumsy that in large parts of the country (including Ontario and much of Atlantic Canada and parts of the west) very little new housing was built.

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