Canada is failing to tackle its housing and homelessness crisis, and the international community is watching

March 27, 2024

In November 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) assessed Canada’s human rights record through its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, and delivered significant – and warranted – criticism on Canada’s nominal progress in tackling a range of critical human rights issues, including its housing and homelessness crisis. On March 18, the Government of Canada responded to these critiques by simply repeating existing promises.   

Meanwhile, advocates across the country have been raising the alarm for decades. The housing and homelessness crisis has reached the point where now a third of renters in Canada cannot afford their rent, many live in overcrowded and poorly maintained homes, and homelessness and encampments are on the rise. In the midst of this escalating crisis, the Canadian government has repeatedly failed to take meaningful action.  

This is not the first time the government has faced difficult questions over its human rights record. Every five years, the HRC reviews Canada’s human rights record, and has consistently called out Canada’s inaction on the human right to housing. For years, the HRC called on the federal government to establish a national housing strategy with tangible targets, significant investments, and commitments to take real action. 

Finally in 2017, following prolonged national advocacy supported by international pressure through the UPR process, Canada introduced a 10-year National Housing Strategy (NHS), and later passed the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) in 2019. At the time, advocates celebrated the NHSA’s recognition of housing as a fundamental human right. However, the NHS committed to ensuring that only 540,000 households in need have affordable, adequate housing.  

This target pales in comparison to the depth of need across the country: 1.5 million households are currently living in unaffordable, overcrowded, and/or dilapidated housing, and 235,000 people experience homelessness each year. The government has failed to meet even its own strategy’s insufficient goals.  

In the absence of meaningful action, Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis has only gotten worse, and those in greatest need – women, Indigenous Peoples, newcomers, racialized communities, people with disabilities, seniors, 2SLGBTQI+ people, and people experiencing homelessness – continue to face the worst outcomes.  

Alongside the UPR’s ongoing critiques of Canada’s inaction, the National Housing Council – a government body tasked to assess the NHS’s effectiveness – released a scathing report last year, calling for the strategy’s complete overhaul. The report noted that despite committing over $70 billion through the NHS, Canada is losing affordable housing faster than it is creating it: for every affordable home built under the NHS, two are lost. Moreover, most housing being built under the NHS is not affordable to those in greatest need, due in part to significant financing going to the private sector – which has consistently failed to produce deeply affordable homes – in addition to flawed affordability requirements that ultimately produce unaffordable homes.  

Meanwhile, in its most recent Fall Economic Statement, Canada announced an additional $15 billion for private sector rental construction, alongside funding for only 7,000 new non-market – public, non-profit, and co-operative – homes. Experts estimate that Canada requires one million such homes in the next decade to meet the current depth of housing need and address homelessness.  

The federal government – alongside the provinces, territories, and municipalities – continues to prioritize building new housing supply with inadequate or outright absent affordability requirements. This approach relies on the theory that building new unaffordable housing frees up affordable housing for those in need. Studies have shown that this approach does not improve housing affordability (especially in the short-term) and may actually raise the cost of existing homes.  

Yesterday, Canada responded to the HRC by only adopting the most vague of its recommendations to address housing and homelessness. What’s more, Canada refused to adopt any of the HRC’s specific recommendations to fully implement and strengthen the NHSA. Instead, it simply repeated its existing, inadequate targets, without acknowledging that it is failing to achieve even those targets. 

Following years of inaction and an escalating crisis, Canada had the chance to finally prove itself as a housing leader on the international stage – especially as it bids for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council – and begin to take its commitment to realize the right to housing seriously. Instead, it has once again chosen to ignore its responsibilities to realize the rights of Canadians and continues to fan the flames of a devastating crisis.

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