Why Toronto needs an Office of the Housing Commissioner

January 19, 2021

Like many cities across Canada, Toronto is in the midst of a housing crisis that has been made worse by COVID-19.

As the pandemic rages on and housing challenges become increasingly more acute and widespread, we continue to keep our eyes set on how the right to housing is advancing in the City of Toronto. One of the principal ways they can do that is by establishing the Office of the Housing Commissioner.

How would a Housing Commissioner help to address the housing crisis in Toronto?

For years, housing advocates have raised the alarm over systemic issues that are contributing to a decades-long housing crisis. Ultimately, all levels of government have the power and responsibility to address these issues, and a rights-based approach to housing policy is the best way they can do that.

We need governments to step up in a big way, and Toronto City Council did that in 2019 when it became the first municipality in Canada to commit to progressively realize the right to housing through its ten-year HousingTO plan. The Housing Commissioner would be one of the City’s best allies to help them achieve this goal.

Since 2019, housing advocates – including CERA and the Right to Housing Toronto Network – have provided the City with recommendations grounded in human rights expertise to shape its policy. The right to housing is a new framework for the City, and it needs to equip itself with the appropriate tools to carry out its task.

The Housing Commissioner would be one of those tools. It would be the expert in the room, guaranteeing that the City would be given rights-based recommendations and advice when their plans may need adjusting, and to keep them on the right track over the next ten years.

What would a Housing Commissioner do?

The City’s HousingTO plan outlines the functions of the Housing Commissioner:

“[The] Housing Commissioner of Toronto will work with City divisions, agencies, boards and commissions to review housing programs and policies to ensure that they align with and advance the principles expressed in the Toronto Housing Charter and support their implementation over the next decade. Additionally, the Housing Commissioner of Toronto will monitor the progress in consultation with groups vulnerable to housing insecurity and report annually to City Council regarding systemic issues related to the City’s compliance with the Toronto Housing Charter.”

In essence, the Commissioner would be empowered with a mandate to support the City in fulfilling its commitment to realize the right to housing. The City has set itself several laudable goals that aim to address the housing crisis through a rights-based approach, and the Housing Commissioner will play a key function to hold the City accountable to meet those goals. In other words, the Housing Commissioner is an accountability mechanism, and one of the key ways to ensure that the City’s goal to realize the right is housing is actually achieved and doesn’t remain as an aspiration on paper only.

Specifically, the Commissioner would:

  • monitor the City’s progress in meeting its timelines and setting targets that are truly grounded in a rights-based approach
  • identify systemic violations of the right to housing by reviewing submissions from rights-holders and advocates
  • provide City Council with recommendations on measures the City must take to fulfil its human rights obligations

What needs to happen next to establish the Office?

In 2019, City Council directed the City Manager to establish the Housing Commissioner in 2020, in consultation with human rights experts. Despite making some important progress on other areas of its HousingTO plan, the City’s timeline for the Housing Commissioner has been pushed into 2021. No specific implementation date or update on its current status has been released to date.

We will continue to closely watch when and how the City will move this item forward. We will also take every opportunity to provide the City with our recommendations to establish the Commissioner in a way that ensures it can effectively carry out its mandate, including by providing it with an appropriately resourced office to complete its work. To that end, it is crucial that the Commissioner’s Office is adequately resourced and is set up to operate independently, despite reporting to City Council, so that it operates in the spirit of public accountability.

In light of the worsening housing crisis in Toronto, we look forward to seeing this office take shape in 2021 and prioritized at upcoming City Council meetings.

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