Province must focus its homelessness strategy

By Kirsten Bernas and Shauna MacKinnon

This article was first published by the Winnipeg Free Press on Thursday October 20, 2022. 

The Oct. 7 Free Press editorial (“Make prudent use of sudden financial windfall”) described a far more optimistic financial situation than the Manitoba government previously projected. This, they say, provides the province with greater “fiscal flexibility” to attend to urgent issues.

The increasing shortage of rental housing for low-income households is one such urgent issue not noted in the editorial. And with the debt-to-GDP ratio expected to be well below previous projections, much-needed investments in social infrastructure, including social housing, are possible.

A robust provincial commitment to address the dire housing needs of low-income renter households through income supports and expanded social-housing supply should be a top priority. This is essential to addressing other critical issues noted in the editorial, including health care, mental health, addictions and other supports for low-income Manitobans.

There is a robust body of evidence demonstrating the pathway out of poverty and poor health begins with stable housing. People who are chronically homeless, as well as those who face housing instability, are more likely to experience poor physical and mental health, challenges in school, involvement in the child-welfare system, involvement in the criminal justice system and difficulties finding and keeping good jobs.

Anyone who has experienced housing precarity knows the toll it takes on all aspects of their life.

Without an increase in the supply of rent-geared-to-income non-market housing, increases in income benefits will not have a significant impact. Rent Assist is an important shelter benefit, and EIA increases are long overdue, but the biggest beneficiaries of these increases are sure to be the private-sector landlords to whom the largest portion of low-income household income goes.

These important benefits don’t address the dire housing-supply issue, which is an essential component of a poverty reduction plan. The only way to ensure housing remains affordable to low-income households, and EIA increases actually benefit low-income people, is to ensure a healthy supply of social housing that is outside of the market. That requires government investment.

Is the cost too great?

Building and maintaining social housing is expensive. Indeed, that was the argument made when governments retrenched from social housing beginning in the early 1990s. Governments at that time said cutting taxes and social spending were the only solution to the recession. But after more than 30 years of reliance on the private sector to take care of all housing need, housing precarity has worsened.

It simply hasn’t worked because it is not profitable. A recent analysis on the erosion of Canada’s low-rent housing stock, released by the Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative, shows Winnipeg lost more than 24,000 private rental units under $750 between 2011 and 2021, while units over $1,000 continued to expand.

Despite this reality, as evidenced by federal and provincial housing plans, governments continue to look to the private market for the solution to rental-housing precarity. This, despite the growing calls for social investment. In 2020 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) described the importance of social housing as “a key part” of housing policy — an “important dimension of social welfare policy and affordable housing provision.”

Until governments recognize the broad benefits of a comprehensive housing plan that includes income supports, private market regulations and access to non-market housing, the “cost” of poverty will continue to grow.

The province of Manitoba has an opportunity to do its part with the upcoming release of its homelessness strategy. People across sectors who participated in the province’s consultation process called for the strategy to include a major expansion to social housing and increases to income benefits that keep up with inflation.

The Manitoba government recently announced it would be increasing EIA’s Basic Needs Benefit, which has remained untouched for decades. This is a welcome step in the right direction, but it will only lift incomes to 47 per cent of the poverty line.

We have a long way to go to reach Make Poverty History Manitoba and the Right to Housing Coalition’s joint call for increases that lift incomes to at least 75 per cent of the poverty line.

The Manitoba government has been silent on how it will respond to the continued call to build 300 net new units of social housing annually for at least five years. This amount is the bare minimum required just to house people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg.

With the federal government now a willing partner under its National Housing Strategy, and with Manitoba’s suddenly brighter financial picture, advocates are expecting no less when the homelessness strategy is released this fall.

Kirsten Bernas chairs the provincial working group of the Right to Housing Coalition.

Shauna MacKinnon is a long-time member of the coalition and a professor in the department of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg.