Make housing the priority for federal "shovel-ready" dollars

February 2, 2009

For the first time in a generation, the federal government is poised to become a major partner in social housing development in Canada. This creates real opportunities for housing advocates and providers who, after decades as lone voices in the political wilderness, have ready-made solutions for ending homelessness. The challenge today is to mobilize “shovel ready” projects that will provide non-market homes in the near-term.

We are living in interesting times. Economic recession has dealt a swift blow to the tired neo-liberal mantra of “lean government.” Faced with a massive credit crunch and slumping real estate, construction, resource, and manufacturing sectors, politicians across the political spectrum are embracing the Keynesian option of “interventionist government” – hoping to spend their way out of what may be the deepest recession since the 1930s.

In Canada, economic conditions combine with unique political conditions. A minority Parliament nearly fired the prime minister in December when he refused to acknowledge the need for bold government action. Now, Prime Minister Harper has reversed course, delivering the largest deficit in recent memory — one that includes $2-billion devoted for affordable housing. While these funds are geared primarily toward renovations, rather than new housing construction, the shift in policy is a step in the right direction.

At key moments in Canada’s history, popular pressure has forced the federal government to intervene in the private housing market. During the First World War, veterans compelled the government of Robert Borden to legislate the Soldier Settlement Act, which, despite administrative problems, aimed to provide land to veterans.

During the Second World War, the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King formed the Central Mortgage and Housing Agency (later renamed Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, CMHC), to fund public housing construction and guarantee private mortgages. The Veterans Land Act empowered 165,000 war veterans to build homes for themselves and their families.

During the “stagflation” squeeze and oil shocks of the early 1970s, the minority Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau (backed by the NDP) legislated the National Housing Act – which spurred the formation of housing co-ops and provided grants to restore old homes and build social housing.

Nearly 1,000,000 low-income Canadians were housed through an array of federal and provincial programs during these innovative years.

However, the period since the 1980s has witnessed a retreat from interventionist government. Globalization, resource depletion, and factory closures coincided with Canadian incarnations of neoconservative “Thatcherism” and “Reaganomics.” Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney privatized Crown corporations and scrapped the Co-operative Housing Program, while Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien oversaw deep budgetary cuts to social spending. By 1993, the federal government had withdrawn entirely from funding new social housing.

These federal moves offloaded services onto cash-strapped provinces. In 2001, BC’s provincial government shut the door on new social housing, despite growing need, and has only very recently re-entered the business of building new units (and at a much reduced level than historic norms). Today, over 13,000 people are on BC Housing’s social housing wait list.

In the cost-cutting climate since the 1980s, hundreds of food banks opened and a growing number of vulnerable citizens endured a downward slide from the margins of the labour force to a life on the streets. They were joined by young people and others fleeing abusive relationships, managing addictions and health problems, and lacking adequate social supports. A legion of homeless people appeared in every Canadian city, where few if any existed before.

Non-profit societies attempted to respond to the growing homelessness crisis, trying in vain to build and operate a sufficient number of supported housing units for the “hardest-to-house.” With government abdicating its responsibility to fill gaps in Canada’s private real-estate market, the homeless problem grew worse with each passing year. That’s how we got into this mess.

The task now is to embrace the unique window of “interventionist government” – created by an economic recession and minority Parliament – to build safe homes for every person in need. There is much talk of “shovel-ready” projects. Let us all hope that federal funds flow to where they are most needed in this province and country: empowering civil society organizations – co-operatives, non-profit societies, and public agencies – to provide housing for all.

Dr. Benjamin Isitt is Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow of History at the University of Victoria and a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives ( He can be reached at [email protected].