Home ownership has long been part of the American (or Canadian) dream, but as high housing prices have pushed many people out of the market, they have far too often found that even renting is too much for them to afford.
This precarious housing situation has long been a subject of study and concern for governments, community agencies, and the public, with affordability being a key concern.
According to a recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study, about 53% of renters in Winnipeg, at the time of the survey (2011), lived in a “core housing need” situation.
This designation means they fulfill one or more of three major criteria: they pay more than 30% of their income for housing costs, they have inadequate space for the needs of the family, or the housing is in need of major repairs.
In other parts of Manitoba, about 50% of renters fit into the category of core housing need.
Two years ago, Josh Brandon of Make Poverty History and Jim Silver attempted to draw attention to the problem with their book, “Poor Housing: A Silent Crisis” (Fernwood Publishing, 2015).
Yet more action, and especially public education, is needed to raise the political will to do something substantial to change this situation.
One tactic that people are using is the idea of a public forum, like the one that took place recently in Winnipeg.
On Aug. 15, 2017, the Resource Assistance for Youth building at 125 Sherbrook St. filled with people coming to participate in a public forum on housing, hosted by MLA Rob Altemeyer and featuring Josh Brandon, together with Kirsten Bernas of the Right to Housing Coalition. The location was significant, as one of RaY’s programs helps to find housing for youth in need.
The evening began with a few remarks from MLA Rob Altemeyer, who noted that although “housing is health,” the issue frequently goes unnoticed in political and community circles.
Josh Brandon spoke next, commenting that “housing is a crucial foundation” in a healthy society; the housing crisis that Canada is currently facing stems from factors such as ever-increasing rent without corresponding increases in average wages.
For many people struggling to keep up with their expenses, the Rent Assist program has been invaluable, allowing people to live in better housing than they could afford on their own by giving them additional money for that purpose.
Before they were in power, the speaker noted, the Manitoba Conservatives supported Rent Assist as an “essential” program, but now they have made major cuts to the initiative, making it more difficult for people to have access to the funds. Essentially, people on Social Assistance will have the same access to Rent Assist as before, while the working poor and others in need will have far more limited possibilities.
Kirsten Bernas spoke next, continuing the discussion with a description of some of the advocacy work that approximately 60 organizations do through the Right to Housing Coalition.
She spoke of the varied history of social housing in Canada and the the lack of investment in it over the last number of years.
In this context, the Right to Housing Coalition is calling for government help in two areas: 1) increasing the supply of housing for low-income residents and 2) reinvesting in existing housing through repairs, renewing operating agreements, and subsidies.
The purpose of the forum was mainly to build public support for and awareness of the issue of low-income housing needs, but one very practical initiative could come from the discussion: a tenants’ association. If that becomes a reality, it could help change the course of housing in Canada.