Top 5 right to housing developments of 2020

December 22, 2020

2020 was a difficult year.

In January, we came off a history-making year that saw both the Government of Canada and the City of Toronto recognize the right to housing and commit to taking a rights-based approach in their housing policy. We had been gearing up to continue pushing the right to housing agenda forward when the world changed in March with the outbreak of COVID-19.

As we near the end of 2020, thousands of people are facing potential eviction and homelessness as the pandemic rages on. Realizing the right to adequate, accessible and affordable housing has never been more urgent or essential.

Here we take stock of some of the biggest right to housing developments of 2020.

1. COVID-19 deeply impacted renters and people experiencing homelessness

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated economic and social inequalities across the world, and the impacts on renters have been significant. Like many countries, Canada has been in the midst of a deepening housing crisis for years, and the context was already bleak when the pandemic arrived. When several provinces went into lockdown in March, thousands of renters who lost their job or income were suddenly struggling to pay rent and vulnerable to eviction as a result.

Provincial moratoriums on eviction were swiftly put in place in March, and while these measures provided some initial relief from an immediate threat of eviction, they were ultimately short-lived. One by one, moratoriums were lifted prematurely, in some provinces as early as May, even though thousands had not yet recovered their income or employment. Since then, advocates have called for a moratorium to be reinstated, including in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia. Ontario came close when a motion was unanimously passed by the Legislature on December 8, and now all eyes are on Premier Doug Ford to sign an executive order to implement the moratorium. For months, advocates in Ontario also raised the alarm over serious human rights and justice issues at the Landlord and Tenant Board, as thousands of eviction hearings have been rushed through and some people have lost their homes in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness were also uniquely impacted by the pandemic, as shelters reduced the number of beds available to follow physical distancing requirements. The congregate settings in shelters led some people to look for other environments to sleep that they considered safer, like in encampments which sprung up in city parks and other outdoor spaces across the country. In response, municipalities like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and London sought solutions to keep people safe and housed during the pandemic, moving hundreds of people living in homelessness into vacant hotels, modular housing and other temporary housing.

Hearing reports from the ground of safety, human rights and justice concerns in encampments and evictions across Toronto, advocates with R2HTO (the Right to Housing Toronto Network) provided the City with recommendations to align its approaches with its commitment to realize the right to housing.

2. The National Housing Strategy inched forward

The Government of Canada made several announcements related to housing and homelessness in their highly-anticipated Speech from the Throne on September 23. Among these announcements were new details about the government’s funding commitments, including a goal to accelerate the creation of 3,000 affordable housing units across the country by March 2021 – a critical addition to the housing stock that will be made through the Rapid Housing Initiative.

Another signal that the federal government is making progress on its National Housing Strategy was through the appointment of Canada’s first National Housing Council, announced on November 22. The Council has a mandate to advance the government’s housing policy and National Housing Strategy, which includes the progressive realization of the right to housing.

At the same time, the federal government launched its search to fill a key position with a mandate to advance the National Housing Strategy – the Federal Housing Advocate. This position will be responsible for monitoring, assessing, reporting, and making recommendations on the right to housing across Canada. This is a new role which has yet to be filled, and the government is currently seeking qualified candidates with applications due on December 30, 2020.

3. New legislation in Ontario weakened tenants’ rights

In July 2020 the Ontario government passed Bill 184, which makes several amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act. Housing advocates raised concerns about the negative impacts that this bill will have on tenants and their rights, which we know will be disproportionally felt by marginalized Ontarians – individuals who are low-income, racialized, newcomers to Canada, youth, and persons with disabilities.

Bill 184 weakens tenants’ rights and makes it easier to evict people by effectively stripping protections from tenants and undermining access to justice. Amendments under Bill 184 also impact tenants financially and widen the power imbalance between landlords and renters.

In a time when tenants need support from our governments the most, this new legislation makes life tangibly more difficult for already-disadvantaged individuals. This bill also made it all the more evident that Ontario renters have remained a low policy priority once again this year.

4. The City of Toronto reinforced its commitment to the right to housing, and we are still waiting for a Housing Commissioner

In December 2019 we celebrated the City of Toronto becoming the first municipality in Canada to commit to a rights-based approach in its housing policy. Nine months later, the City released its HousingTO Implementation Plan 2020-2030 containing the first details of how it intends to address affordable housing and homelessness over the next ten years.

One laudable goal in their plan is the creation of 40,000 new affordable housing units in the city with specific targets to provide affordable housing for individuals most in need, including people experiencing homelessness, youth, seniors, people with physical and developmental disabilities, indigenous households, and girls- and women-led households.

While the City’s plan is a good next step to realize its commitments, key details including timelines and concrete dates, as well as additional resources, are needed to better understand how and when the City will reach the targets it has set for itself. We have identified the good and the gaps that we’ll be keeping an eye on as plans continue taking shape in 2021.

We had also hoped the City would establish the Office of the Housing Commissioner in 2020, which is a centerpiece of the City’s HousingTO plan. The purpose of the Housing Commissioner is to hold the City accountable to its commitment to realize the right to housing. The timeline has been pushed back to 2021, and we are eagerly awaiting news on how this office will take shape and to see a budget commitment made to support its work. Ensuring independent accountability for a rights-based approach to housing policy could not be more urgent as the City continues to respond to an unprecedented global pandemic that has disproportionately affected some of our most marginalized citizens.

5. New seeds were planted to claim the right to housing across Canada

In the fall, CCHR and the National Right to Housing Network kicked off a new initiative working with communities across Canada to identify systemic violations of the right to housing, propose solutions and influence systemic changes in the housing landscape. Policy advocates, community leaders and lived experts across the country came together for two online working group meetings, contributing their collective knowledge and experience to propose solutions to address the deepening housing crisis facing so many communities.

These meetings planted new seeds that will support communities to engage with and benefit from rights-based housing policy, in particular the National Housing Strategy. Stay tuned for opportunities to engage in this initiative in 2021.

2020 has been a challenging year. The impacts of COVID-19 have pushed housing issues to the forefront while the housing and evictions crisis escalated to new heights.

As many Canadians continue to grapple with income loss, financial instability and housing insecurity, 2021 will be a crucial year to advance the right to housing. At CCHR, we’ll continue working with communities, advocates and governments to push this important agenda forward and we hope you will join us in this work.

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