Breakthrough at the federal/provincial/territorial housing ministers' meeting, London, Ontario

August 21, 2001 - by Michael Shapcott, National Housing and Homelessness Network

An important breakthrough at the federal-provincial-territorial housing ministers' meeting in London - thanks to the determined efforts of National Housing and Homelessness Network partners and allies.

We've moved several key steps closer to a fully-funded national housing program. After eight years of housing drought in Canada, the developments are exceptionally important.

First, the federal government is going to re-draft its $680 million housing grants program ($170 million annually over four years) and negotiate deals with the provinces and territories to get the housing built. The ministers will be meeting in early November in Quebec City to conclude the negotiations and get the program going. This was a key demand of NHHN and other groups, such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The federal program, as it was proposed before the London summit, would have created rental housing that was not affordable to more than half the tenant households in most parts of Canada. The new program will be geared to low and moderate-income households.

We expect to see a new federal housing program in three months that will allow us to start building new housing (including new social housing) soon after that. This is an extremely hopeful development. In order to accommodate the changes to make sure that the program helps lower-income households, instead of upper-income ones, there will be fewer units built (since each unit will require more money). But we should get the start of a new national housing program - so desperately needed after so many years of arrested development.

The fact that the ministers have set such a short deadline to complete negotiations on the new program - just three months - is also a hopeful sign. And those of us in the network should be pleased that the meeting will be held in Quebec City and chaired by Manitoba, two provinces that are more sympathetic to our demands than other provinces (such as Ontario).

Second, the federal government now calls its $680 million program "short-term". This is the response that federal housing minister Alfonso Gagliano gave to NHHN during our private meeting with him on Thursday morning. We noted that the federal program is less than 10% of our goal of $2 billion annually. Minister Gagliano didn't try to argue with us. He just called his program "short-term", then repeated that under questioning from the media at the post-summit press conference. This should be a huge encouragement for NHHN and others to step up the political pressure on the feds to "ramp up" their spending (to quote Jack Layton of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities). So, here's what the network and our allies need to do in the next few months leading up to Quebec City:

  • We've got to hold Minister Gagliano's feet to the fire to make sure that the re-drafted program meets our target of low and moderate-income tenant households.
  • we've got to increase the pressure regarding the One Percent Solution so that the feds put real money on the table for a real national housing program.
  • we've got to build the pressure on the provinces and territories, so that they add their own money for housing.
  • and, of course, we've got to start working to build an even more powerful presence in Quebec City.

But first, let's pause for a moment and congratulate ourselves for such a powerful and effective presence in London. Our work received dozens of positive comments from lots of politicians, officials and others about the power of our key actions in London, including the Tuesday press conference, Wednesday community forum, FRAPRU tent city on Wednesday night, Thursday morning meeting with Ministers Gagliano and Hodgson and the Thursday rally at noon.

This rally, in particular, was a huge success. There were about 200 people (the biggest gathering ever at a national housing summit) from London, Windsor, Brantford, Kitchener, Toronto, Montreal and Hull. Our event was passionate and powerful, a clear demonstration of the determination of the network and its allies to build the pressure for a new national housing program.

It was a moment of great delight for me to welcome the bus from Montreal with lots of low-income tenants. And I was very proud to welcome the bus from Toronto, with homeless people and low-income tenants.

The symbolic house built by tent city residents was a powerful part of the overall event.

Congratulations to lots of people who did incredible work. I want to particularly acknowledge Musonda Kidd, Francois Saillant, Lucie Poirier,Tom Appleyard, Jan Richardson and Susan Eagle. Many others also helped in lots of big and small ways. In one very big day, we've moved a good distance in the right direction.

The usual cautions, however. The process to date has been painfully slow. We have to acknowledge that as politicians spin out the process, many people have died on our streets and many, many more have had their lives shattered by the housing crisis. Even as we celebrate the breakthrough in London, we have to say with great sadness that the developments have been too slow for too many.

There is still a chance that everything could unravel before or during the Quebec City meeting. And we'll get nothing. So we can't celebrate the real victory until the first units have been built under the proposed new program.

We've still got some major work to convince the federal government to up their ante from $170 million annually to $2 billion annually. And, of course, we've got to make sure that the provinces and territories match the federal funds (an important challenge even in Quebec or Manitoba and a very big challenge in Ontario and Alberta).

But it's a positive development that we've now arguing with politicians about dollars and programs. Last year, we were still trying to convince them that there was even a federal or provincial/territorial role in funding new housing.