Adequate housing has been touted as a ‘frontline defence against coronavirus’ since the intensification of the global pandemic. As a result, heightened attention has been given to the problems of homelessness and housing insecurity across Canada. However, these are far from new issues. In December 2019, before the economic downturn spurred by the pandemic, the majority of Canadians were concerned that at least one person they cared about was at risk of experiencing homelessness. Under present conditions, this risk is likely closer to reality for many as residential eviction bans were set to be lifted on July 1, 2020 in some provinces while others are set to be lifted on August 1, 2020.
Nevertheless, not all housing advocates in Canada are pessimistic. In fact, housing advocates appear to be of two opinions on the direction policy leaders will take. On one hand, an increase in homelessness may occur if greater eviction prevention measures are not put in place to ensure protection to those who have fallen into arrears during the eviction ban period. On the other hand, a decrease in homelessness may occur with a continuation of generous social policy developments and non-profit efforts to move homeless individuals into safe and secure housing.
However, this dichotomy is an over-simplification. As the report on The State of Women’s Housing Need & Homelessness in Canada has recently documented, women’s homelessness has yet to be adequately addressed and COVID-19 is exacerbating pre-existing shortcomings. This is especially the case as the economic downturn has had disproportionate negative effects on women’s incomes. Recognizing gendered and racialized components woven throughout the population who are housing insecure presents a clearer, albeit more complex, picture. Without this complex understanding new investments may overlook those who need support the most and a straightforward decrease cannot occur with current policies.
For a true decrease in homelessness two conditions are necessary. Firstly, contradictions between Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act and federal, provincial, and municipal housing policies need to be resolved. Secondly, an intersectional lens must be used to ensure that the ‘right to housing’ inscribed in the National Housing Strategy Act does not have exclusionary results.
Canadian Housing Policy: Heading in Contradictory Directions
Housing policy in Canada has gone through several phases. The 1960s and 1970s saw innovation in social housing and non-profit operated cooperative housing. In contrast, the 1980s and the 1990s represented a period of downturn in funding for affordable housing projects in Canada as the responsibility for these projects was put onto provincial and municipal governments. Since 1999 however, the federal government has been relatively more attentive to homelessness and is showing a greater interest in access to housing for all with the passage of the National Housing Strategy Act. The Act includes a vague recognition of housing as an international human right.
Despite federal re-engagement, and rather than moving toward enacting housing as a human right, housing policies have been moving toward greater financialization. This implies that housing, now more deregulated and privatized, is treated as a commodity and is used strictly as a means of capital accumulation. Leilani Farha, former United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, has made clear that financialization is not consistent with a right to housing. With financialization of housing, profits are valued above and beyond the rights of tenants.
Prior to the onset of the global pandemic, landlords deployed several tactics to displace and replace low-income tenants with rent increases or circumvention of rental increase limitations. The current conditions are even less favorable for tenants. For instance, with the coronavirus, renters and individuals with lower hourly incomes have experienced a greater decrease in hours worked as compared to homeowners. Consequently, many tenants are now in rental arrears, which can be means for eviction.
Problematically, the National Housing Strategy Act does not engage with the provinces that design and implement housing policies. Rather than addressing increased vulnerability as a right to housing approach would, Ontario, a long-time provincial leader on housing policy, has recently passed Bill-184, Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act. This legislation has the potential to strengthen the power of landlords and weaken the power of tenants. The legislation would allow landlords to bypass the severely backlogged Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) by being allowed to pursue rent repayment plans with tenants without an LTB hearing. With this direction it is likely that there will be an increase in homelessness amongst vulnerable populations.
Women’s Housing (In)Security: Vulnerability in an Age of the ‘Right to Housing’
A right to housing is critical to those experiencing homelessness. Yet, to imagine an inclusive right to housing, it is necessary to look beyond the visible homeless population. Women and families represent a large portion of the hidden homelessness population given lack of shelters in some communities and lack of shelter capacity in others. For instance, due to capacity issues, women and children are frequently turned away from shelters. While there is a lack of clear data on how many women and families experience hidden homelessness nationally, there are multiple factors that illustrate the extent of vulnerability experienced by women and single mothers.
Municipal level data collection shows the rates of family and women’s homelessness are increasing. Data collected by the City of Toronto indicates that families accessing shelters increased by more than 50 percent between 2017 and 2019 . Similarly, the City of Ottawa’s data shows the number of families accessing shelters increased by almost 50 percent between 2014 and 2019 . Homeless Point-in-Time (PiT) counts also saw an increase in the number of single women experiencing homelessness. In Kingston, Ontario, the PiT count found that women represent 55 percent of those experiencing homelessness.
Despite this visible increase, the true rate of women and families experiencing homelessness is unknown. Women’s homelessness is often considered to be hidden given that it is experienced in private settings (e.g. on the couches of friends or in the homes of domestic abusers). Therefore, it is necessary to look to other data points to understand the severity of the issue.
Another data point that must be considered, then, is the gap in ability to afford to pay rent (i.e. racialized/gendered wage-gaps and the feminization of poverty). This is especially clear in Toronto, the city with the highest rental costs in Canada. The average rent in Toronto in 2018 was $1,370 CAD per month or $16,440 CAD per year. To put this into perspective, the average yearly income for women in Canada in 2018 was $39,800 CAD. Using an average rental rate and an average wage, a single woman would need to allocate 41 percent of her income for rent alone. Women who experience intersecting forms of oppression (e.g. racialized wage gaps, lack of affordable childcare limiting work) spend more than the average percentage of income on rent.
It is also important to look at the rental vacancy rate, as it has been shown that landlords exhibit biases. Women with children and individuals receiving provincial social assistance are viewed less favorably by landlords. Black and Indigenous women find it particularly hard to access adequate rental units. In rental markets where demand is greater than supply, biased landlords can lead to and prolong episodes of homelessness for women with multiple forms of oppression.
For a right to housing to truly exist, women’s vulnerability in the housing market must be recognized and properly addressed through greater subsidized and supportive housing options. Homelessness and housing supports are insufficient forms of protection. Social housing was designed to shield those who are not able to find appropriate housing within the public market. But, with extensive waitlists, demand for social housing is not being met.
A robust and inclusive right to housing would guarantee affordable housing to all in need. More practically, this would mean greater investment in subsidized housing, restraining the power of landlords, implementing rent caps that align with average wages in specific locations, and providing eviction prevention services to everyone who receives an eviction notice. Finally, and most importantly, each level of government must come together and ensure that policy directions are well aligned to truly establish a right to housing in Canada. Policy coordination should not be put off as a vague future endeavor and must be accomplished in the very near term to prevent even higher increases in homelessness in general and women’s and family homelessness in particular. The coronavirus, and its negative impact on women’s employment, simply amplifies the necessity for a robust and inclusive right to housing.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Lori Oliver is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University and a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholar. Her research interests include gendered welfare state politics, poverty, housing/homelessness policies, and intersectional inequalities. Lori previously worked on community-based research projects with ACORN Canada, Adsum for Women & Children, and the IWK Health Centre. Her current PhD research is critically assessing gaps in social safety nets and homelessness initiatives that contribute to increasing levels of family homelessness.