Putting forward the case for affordable housing

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Grappling with a global pandemic over the past year has created a host of new “givens.” Masks on, maintaining physical distance, lining up to enter stores, keeping social interactions to the screen; we follow the directives to ensure our safety, knowing that our individual health means protecting the broader community, which, in turn, circles back to benefit ourselves and our families.

We can think of the community housing sector in the same way, just on a bigger scale. When we make sure that individuals have access to a safe, secure and affordable home, it means all Canadians have access to the space and hygiene facilities needed to stay safe through the pandemic. It means that businesses – from large-scale resource operations to the local market on the corner – are able to attract and retain employees. When everyone has an affordable home, we ensure that families have enough to spend on basic needs as well as on the extras. When there is enough supportive housing for our most vulnerable neighbours to be safe, we ensure our federal, provincial and municipal resources are used most effectively and efficiently. All of it circles back to benefit us as individuals, families and communities, and all of it stems from housing. 

Access to affordable housing brings safety, security and the opportunity to thrive within our communities. Its value is recognized in federal legislation as the right to housing, and by the United Nations as a basic human right. Housing is deeply tied to our physical and mental well-being – it is a fundamental human need. That is why we must not only protect existing stock, but also increase investment into the sector so that we guarantee there is enough affordable housing for everyone and that it serves our communities’ varied needs. 

The affordable housing landscape varies across the country; here in B.C., it is made available through a mix of public and private programs and funding, and delivered in different forms through the community housing sector. But what exactly is the community housing sector? This term refers to the wide range of local partners who have a stake in building and maintaining a long-term supply of permanent affordable housing. It includes non-profit and co-op sector organizations and housing providers, community land trusts, municipalities, charities and faith-based groups, as well as cause-driven private sector organizations and financial institutions. It covers the network of agencies planning for and delivering housing and supports for seniors, individuals, families, Indigenous people, people with low to moderate incomes, those experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, mental health and/or substance use challenges, women and children fleeing domestic violence, and middle-income earners. 

At BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), our focus is on the non-profit housing providers and associated businesses that are part of the broader community housing sector. In our province alone there are more than 800 non-profit housing providers who own and/or operate 65,000 affordable homes. BCNPHA advocates for this entire network of housing providers with leading research and policy, as well as education, events, programs and services that raise the capacity of the non-profit housing sector. 

Affordable housing requires a significant investment in terms of funding, policy direction and in how we set our housing priorities. Is it worth it? The short answer is a resounding “yes,” and the whys – or the slightly longer answer – bear that out. Investing in affordable housing generates both economic and social value. Beyond the value generated from housing construction, there are direct economic benefits of affordable housing developments that flow to residents, surrounding communities and local businesses. The social return on investment in affordable housing, derived from improved health, stronger connections, decreased transportation times for work and shopping, and the shift to higher-quality housing, further add to the value of such projects. 

Business leaders have repeatedly made the case for the availability of affordable housing as a critical element to their organization’s success. Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, stated the lack of affordable housing options made it “exceptionally hard” to grow a business in Vancouver; Toronto businesses experience similar pressures, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, he added. But it’s not just tech giants feeling the pinch when it comes to attracting skilled labour to an out-of-reach home ownership landscape and near zero-vacancy rental market in urban centres. Businesses in resort communities like Whistler and Tofino face unique challenges in drawing both seasonal workers and long-term staff when housing prices reflect tourist demand. Remote communities home to large industries and natural resource sectors struggle to provide enough supply, and a variety of housing types, to reflect their labour needs. In all cases, a good mix and supply of affordable housing ensures businesses can attract and retain good staff – boosting their bottom line and supporting thriving local economies. 

Investing in affordable housing generates jobs and tax revenue, contributing more than $10 billion to Canada’s GDP annually, but it also translates to less spending in other areas, according to the Affordable Housing Plan for BC. In B.C., investing $81 million annually into preventing and ending homelessness would save $177 million on health care, shelters, the justice system and other social supports. Ensuring access to affordable housing helps ensure a healthy housing system that supports a broad range of needs, from homelessness prevention to accessible home ownership. The stability of affordable housing also provides residents with greater spending power for basic needs like healthier food, medical needs, and transportation, as well as at local businesses – supporting a diverse economy and spreading the benefits of affordable housing to its neighbours. 

Affordable housing’s social return on investment was measured in a recent BC Housing study, which found that for every dollar invested in housing, individuals, communities and governments will see two to three dollars in social and economic value. “Beyond the economic stimulation that housing construction generates, there is approximately 20-30% ‘value added’ when this construction results in affordable housing, and 92% ‘value added’ when that affordable housing is targeted to, and includes support for, marginalized populations,” the report states. Residents interviewed for the study cited a range of important benefits associated with their affordable homes, including: increased disposable income; access to counselling, programs and supports; increased safety from violence; children experiencing a more stable environment; increased well-being with healthier living conditions; strong sense of social well-being and connectedness; decreased stress associated with housing instability; and, much more. 

In today’s market, for every new affordable home built in B.C. there are three more lost to rent increases, conversions and demolitions – putting secure housing further out of reach for low-income people. With 23% of B.C. residents already spending more than 50% of their income on rent and utilities, there is a deep level of housing insecurity throughout the province. We cannot rely on the market to deliver the different types of housing needed in our communities; public investment is critical for ensuring individuals and families have access to secure, affordable housing, but also for creating the kind of communities capable of supporting healthy economies. 

The housing crisis can feel insurmountable, but B.C. is making progress. The provincial government committed to building the 114,000 new rental homes outlined in the Affordable Housing Plan for B.C. and although progress has been slower than we want to see, it is happening. Federal investments into new market rental supply are also helping to ease the pressure on the affordable housing system.  

Access to affordable housing is the foundation upon which we build diverse, thriving communities. Just as we take measures to protect ourselves and others during the pandemic, we must also take steps to protect, and expand, the availability of affordable housing so that our neighbours, friends and family can have access to secure housing. Because unless we are all protected, none of us are protected. 

Jill Atkey is the CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), www.bcnpha.ca.

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