Affordable housing situation shameful, social advocate says

  • Feb. 18, 2011 5:00 a.m.

A leading social advocate said he is “ashamed” by the failure of the federal government to support initiatives designed to increase the supply of affordable housing, during a regional conference seeking solutions to the growing problem of homelessness and rising housing costs.

While numbers vary, several hundred thousand Canadians currently lack secure housing.

By one other measure, one in four Canadian households find themselves in unaffordable housing situations.

For a rich country like Canada, this  figure is unacceptable, said Michael Shapcott, the National Housing and Homelessness Leader and Director of Affordable Housing and Innovation for the Wellesley Institute, an Ontario-based think tank, during his key note presentation to the B.C. Affordable Housing Research and Action Roundtable held Friday at UBC-Okanagan in Kelowna.

The one-day event drew academics, social service providers and local politicians. They heard from Shapcott that Canada – unlike the United States and major European countries – remains the last major developed nation without a national housing program.

“I’m very ashamed that we don’t have a national housing plan,” he said.

Shapcott began his presentation with the observation that access to good, affordable housing shapes the social, economic and political life of a society.

Housing — or the lack thereof — also determines the health of a nation, added Shapcott, who argued that Canada could save billions in health care dollars, if it were to invest in a national program that would address housing insecurities across the country, including the Okanagan.

“There is a real correlation between people’s housing status and health,” he said.

Even the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has recognized the importance of housing in calling for an end to homelessness, said Shapcott.

Yet Ottawa and B.C. are heading in the wrong direction by cutting funding for affordable housing initiatives, even as the economy has on balance continued to grow, he said.

Lance Jukabec, an analyst with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, added to the seemingly bleak picture by noting that local housing prices have returned to the high pre-recession levels.  The gap between local incomes and local housing prices has continued to get worse, as outside investors continue to buy properties in the Okanagan.

To buy a condo with a resell value of $254,000, a buyer must have an average income of $60,000, he said. Yet the median income in Kelowna is just over $38,000.

The BC Affordable Housing Research and Action Roundtable was the third of its kind held around the province during the past year. Previous roundtables where held in Victoria last February and Vancouver in December.

Friday’s roundtable focused on housing issues in the Okanagan, one of the fastest growing regions in the province, yet also one of the most expensive in terms of housing.

Conference co-organizer Carlos Teixeira, an associate professor of urban geography at UBC-Okanagan, said during his opening remarks that affordable housing remains one of the central problems facing the region as its economy transitions away from agriculture. The cost of housing, he added, will impact the ability of the region to attract and retain young people and new-comers in the face of an aging society.