The National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) is Canada’s first piece of legislation that identifies housing as a fundamental human right as recognized under international law.
It recognizes that all people have the “right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity” and provides the federal government with a mandate to develop and support rights-based housing policies to advance its commitment to progressively realize the right to housing over time.
The NHSA recognizes that housing is important for the inherent dignity of a person and that it helps to build communities that are inclusive.
Under the NHSA, the federal government is required to:
- Adopt and maintain a National Housing Strategy to eliminate homelessness and realize the right to adequate housing for all in the shortest possible time, using all appropriate means and the maximum of available resources.
- Ensure that vulnerable groups and those affected by homelessness and inadequate housing are able to participate in developing housing policy to realize their right to housing
- Create and support mechanisms for vulnerable groups who are denied the right to housing to identify systemic issues, make submissions and have access to hearings
- Respond to recommendations about what the federal government must do to address systemic issues and ensure the right to housing for all
The NHSA does not require:
- The federal government to provide a home to every person in Canada
- Courts to hear claims from individuals alleging violations of their right to housing under the NHSA
Understanding systemic issues
Although the NHSA does not provide an avenue for individuals to pursue a complaint related to a violation of their individual right to housing, if many people are facing a similar kind of issue which hinders the realization of their right to housing, this may be identified as a systemic issue.
Examples of systemic issues:
- Unaffordability: when many households are forced to live in overcrowded housing or are unable to afford the rent for a home which is appropriate for the size of their household
- Widespread arrears and threat of eviction: when many renters are facing the threat of eviction or unmanageable debt due to the accumulation of rental arrears as a result of employment or income loss suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Systemic Discrimination: when racialized and low-income renters face widespread discrimination and are forced to rent inadequate and badly maintained housing
- Inability to live in the community: When persons with disabilities are unable to live independently in the community because of lack of support services and affordable housing
- Loss of affordable housing: When large corporations and investment funds buy up affordable housing to evict tenants and turn it into more expensive housing
People who are affected by these and other types of issues related to the right to housing may make a submission to the Federal Housing Advocate to investigate and make recommendations to the responsible Minister to take action. In some cases, the Federal Housing Advocate may also refer the issues raised in a submission to a Review Panel for public hearings.
Key mechanisms to implement the NHSA
Three key mechanisms have been created under the NHSA to hold the federal government accountable to implement the right to housing:
- The Federal Housing Advocate
- The National Housing Council
- The Review Panel
Each of these mechanisms has a distinct role and set of responsibilities, and all three interact with one another. Together they provide an innovative and participatory model through which systemic housing issues and human rights claims can be presented by affected groups and reviewed outside of the judicial system.
Let’s take a closer look at their roles and responsibilities.
Federal Housing Advocate
The Office of the Federal Housing Advocate is located within the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Its role is to promote and ensure compliance with the federal government’s policy to progressively realize the right to housing over time through various mechanisms and processes.
The Advocate is responsible to:
- assess and make recommendations to the federal government on the implementation of the right to housing across Canada, particularly with respect to vulnerable groups and individuals experiencing homelessness
- initiate inquiries into incidents or conditions in a community, institute, industry or economic sector
- monitor the government’s progress in meeting goals and timelines
- receive and investigate submissions on systemic housing issues from affected groups
- submit findings and recommended actions to the designated Minister to which the Minister must respond within 120 days
- refer key systemic issues for accessible hearings before a Review Panel
- give a meaningful role and voice to affected communities who are facing systemic housing issues and help them claim their right to housing
National Housing Council
The National Housing Council is a body created to further the progressive realization of the right to housing and oversee the National Housing Strategy. The Council advises the Minister responsible for housing issues in Canada about the effectiveness of the National Housing Strategy, and promotes participation and inclusion in housing policy development.
The NHSA requires that the Council is made up of individuals as well as government representatives, and includes representation from vulnerable groups, people with lived experience of homelessness and inadequate housing, people reflecting the diversity of Canadian society, and people with human rights expertise. Through the make-up of this Council, people who are directly impacted by housing challenges across the country will be involved in vital decisions to assess and ensure the government’s compliance with the right to housing.
The Council is responsible to:
- focus on improving housing outcomes for persons in greatest need
- facilitate participatory processes to ensure inclusion of vulnerable groups and people with lived experiences
The role of the Review Panel is to hear selective cases of systemic issues that are identified by the Federal Housing Advocate. When the Federal Housing Advocate receives one or more submissions on a systemic issue, the Advocate may request the National Housing Council to form from its members a three-person Review Panel to hear such issues. The Review Panel will be selected to ensure representation from vulnerable groups, people with lived experiences, and human rights expertise.
The Review Panel is responsible to:
- hold a hearing to review systemic housing issues
- hold a hearing in a manner that allows people affected by the issue, as well as organizations with expertise in the right to housing, to participate
- prepare a report that sets out the panel’s opinion on the issue and recommendations to address the issue
- submit the report to the Minister responsible who must respond by outlining the measures that will be taken to resolve the issue
How the NHSA helps rights holders claim the right to housing
Making submissions to the Federal Housing Advocate on systemic issues that deny affected groups their right to housing is a critical new tool for claiming the right to housing. The Federal Housing Advocate will engage with affected groups and conduct a thorough investigation into the issue. The Advocate’s findings and recommendations will be based on what is required under international human rights law to ensure the right to housing, and they cannot be ignored by the government. If the Advocate refers the issue to a review panel, this will provide an additional opportunity for affected individuals and groups to be heard and to bring forth their claim to the right to housing.
These mechanisms ensure that affected groups can participate and contribute to the realization of their right to housing, which is a core component of a rights-based approach. The meaningful engagement of rights holders that is outlined in the NHSA can be an effective way to claim the right to housing as established under the tenets of international law.