‘Where is the creativity?’: Leilani Farha on the parties’ housing platforms

TVO.org speaks with the former U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing about the nationwide housing crisis — and why she fears none of the parties is ready to take it on
By Sarah Trick - Published on Sep 16, 2021
Leilani Farha is the global director of the SHIFT, a housing initiative. (Courtesy of Leilani Farha)

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According to Leilani Farha, this federal election is different: all major parties are acknowledging there’s a housing crisis. She says the crisis has, though, existed for years, and she would know—she’s currently director of the Shift, a global housing initiative and was previously the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing

TVO.org speaks with Farha about the federal parties’ plans and what they can — and can’t — do to address the housing crisis.

TVO.org: I wanted to talk about the federal election and the housing policies that have been proposed by the different parties. Have you had a chance to look at any of the promises or policy proposals the parties are making? And what do you think of them?

Leilani Farha: What’s quite unusual in this election is the admission and acknowledgement that the country is facing a housing crisis. I think all the parties, at one time or another, have named it as a crisis. And that’s new and actually surprising, given that I feel we’ve been in the crisis for some time now. But it’s very good to see the parties acknowledging it. All the parties have housing as a significant section in their platform. I can’t agree with the way it’s always couched or where it finds itself. For example, even in the leaders’ debate, it was part of a discussion on affordability. And, as we all know, especially those of us who aren’t in the top 1 per cent to 10 per cent of income earners in the country, housing constitutes the largest part of our monthly expenses. And so to talk about housing alongside other affordability issues may not be appropriate. And given the role that residential real estate plays in our economy and in economic growth and expectations of economic growth, it might not be appropriate to put housing under just that affordability rubric. 

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Agenda segment, April 24, 2018: Housing as a human right

TVO.org: Could you explain that a little bit more? 

Farha: If you look at what makes up Canada’s gross domestic product, what you’ll find is that the housing sector plays a huge role. And the flow of a mortgage-based housing system has very much to do with the economic growth of a country. When you start thinking about it this way, you’ll start understanding why there’s been an over-emphasis on homeownership throughout the election period. So when they’re talking about the housing crisis, most are really talking about homeownership and the importance of homeownership and getting more people into homeownership who are being shut out. 

To be honest, it’s not because they’re really concerned about first-time homebuyers. Think about it this way: I buy a house. I get a mortgage. I start paying off that mortgage. I start getting equity in my property. And once I start accruing some equity, even just a little bit these days, I can then borrow more money from a bank and put that money back into the economy. I can borrow money to buy a car. I can borrow money to take trips. I can borrow money to buy a new washing machine. And that creates this whole economic energy that people don’t often remember about a mortgage-based housing system. And so my point about where housing sits within a platform is that it should be front and centre; it’s an issue of finance, economics, economic growth, etc. And so I don’t like seeing it buried in this affordability category, when in order to address the housing crisis, we need to look at monetary policy and fiscal policy, as well as housing policy. 

TVO.org: I’ve never made that connection before.

Farha: I used to think, of course, that homeownership provides security. And it can, and I don’t mean to dismiss that. But rest assured that when governments are establishing mortgage-based housing systems, they are not really doing it because they care to house people. They’re doing it because it is a significant way to grow an economy. The byproduct is you get a few people housed. And the reason I know this is because I’ve had the advantage of travelling to developing countries. And if you read any materials about economic growth in a developing country, what you’ll see the World Bank saying or the International Monetary Fund saying is, we need to create a certain kind of economic base. And once we create certain economic conditions in a country, we can start establishing a mortgage-based housing system for economic growth. So when we turn back to the platforms, and we see so much emphasis on home ownership, that’s why. It’s very important to our economy, and they know it.

TVO.org: And they also know that there are people who would have been able to purchase a home previously who are not now. Is that, then, what they mean when they say there’s a housing crisis?

Farha: That’s part of what they mean. Some of the parties — the Liberals, for example — have a flipping tax in their platform. But they don’t seem concerned, for example, with the big investors that are buying up homes and turning them into rentals. I don’t see any of the platforms trying to stop big investors from purchasing homes and turning them into rentals, and that precludes individuals from owning homes as well. But they don’t seem to care about that. And I’m not exactly sure why. One of the things that I do find interesting, in all the platforms, is a concern about other kinds of investment in housing. It seems that they’re more concerned with foreign investment in individual homes than they are with the big investors buying up multi-family dwellings, like apartment buildings.

TVO.org: When you’re talking about people from overseas buying properties in Vancouver, you hear politicians say, like, “We’re going to crack down on this — people can’t come to Vancouver if they don’t want to live there.” I think those properties that the people from overseas are buying, they’re not likely to be ones that a struggling working-class family could rent.

Farha: I can’t say it’s a complete red herring to look at foreign investment. But what you said is absolutely true. We have to understand, is there actually a relationship between what individual foreign investors are doing — by purchasing condos for their kids who might be going to school there, by purchasing mansions and never living there — and, as you say, the struggling low-income family, the family living in receipt of social assistance, and the units that they would be trying to access? 

In Canada, we have real-estate investment trusts. And there are other REITs, we call them, that are operating in many jurisdictions. In any event, what they are doing is purchasing en masse apartment buildings, apartment complexes, ones that were built in the ’60s and ’70s, where people sometimes have been living for many years or decades and have been paying reasonable rent — they’re purchasing them because they know they can squeeze more profit. And the business model is such that they purchase, they make modest improvements, and they raise rents. And they either try to drive tenants out so they have empty units and can raise the rent as much as they want or try to push the rent up by applying for higher rents than they should normally be allowed to charge. 

Their targets are return on investment to shareholders. They are the only trusts in Canada that don’t pay income tax. The Liberals have quite interestingly said they want to review the tax regime that allows these entities to operate. That’s really good news. It is probably the most radical of all of the platforms in that way. The NDP says it wants to make sure that when the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation gives loans to these actors, those loans don’t get implicated in rent evictions. So it’s very interesting as well, and also fairly radical.

TVO.org: So the definition of affordable housing, I gather, is a source of some controversy. There’s a CBC Nova Scotia story from September 15 that I wanted to get your take on. The headline is, “Ottawa is lending billions to developers. The result: $1,500 ‘affordable rents.’” So it’s talking about the different ways affordability can be calculated; from what the article says, developers are getting these loans from the government, and while their buildings can still be marketed as affordable housing, rents might actually be higher than the local average.

Farha: I will say the government has admitted that the program is flawed. CMHC has said that that program should not be in the National Housing Strategy and needs to be revised. But what they did was, they gave cheap money to developers, who were required to build a certain percentage of affordable housing, I think something like 25 per cent of their units had to be affordable. 

But affordability was measured based on median income in the area where they’re building. I know Ottawa, where I live, has a very high median income. So if you take 30 per cent of median income, it’s still way higher than what someone in receipt of social assistance could afford or someone working a minimum-wage or an average-wage job could afford. And that becomes the problem. You end up with units that are $1500 a month; that might be below market in that neighborhood, but that is not affordable to the people who are in need. Affordability should match household need. Every community, every city, needs to do an assessment. Who is in core housing need in our city? How many minimum-wage workers do we have? How many people in receipt of social assistance? Where are they living, and what are they paying, and who’s on our social housing wait-list? Right? And then you build according to need. 

Agenda segment, September 14, 2021: Examining the federal housing promises

TVO.org: It seems that a lot of initiatives that politicians support target people who are middle-class and might be looking to buy a home — not so much working-class people or people who live in poverty or on social assistance. Is my read of that fair? 

Farha: There’s very little talk about how the parties are going to protect renters. Renters are the lowest-income people in our country, and whether you’re renting social housing or private market, you’re going to be lower income than most people who own homes. It is now in law that the federal government’s housing policy recognizes housing as a human right. When you enter the area of housing as a human right, what you’re wanting to do to realize that right is to ensure it is enjoyed by the people most in need, those whose rights are most likely to be violated or who are not enjoying the right. That is people living in rental accommodation and homelessness, period. 

And how much talk have we had around homelessness and homeless encampments during this election? Scant. I mean, it’s in their platforms in dismissive ways, because it’s just, like, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to end homelessness.” Well, how? And what connections are they making? The obligation on governments to realize the right to housing means ensuring those most in need are properly housed and have access to adequate, affordable, secure housing. Each platform should have detailed how they’re going to do that. I think something like 80 per cent of people in receipt of some kind of social assistance, whether it’s general welfare assistance or disability assistance, live in the private rental market. The private rental market is unaffordable for most people, especially for people receiving fixed income. We know that social-assistance rates are set at levels that are about 50 per cent below any measure of poverty in this country.

TVO.org: In Ontario, I was on disability for a long time. Even the rate for a single disabled adult, someone who is presumed to be unable to work, is $1,169 per month.                                                                                        

Farha: Right. And if you think about what’s available in terms of rental accommodation, a one-bedroom in Ottawa is more than $1,000. So then you have $100 to feed yourself and clothe yourself and deal with every emergency — and buy hand sanitizer now and all these other expenses that we didn’t have before. The failing of all the political parties, frankly, is that they don’t understand what their human-rights obligations would be if they were to assume power and form government. And they’re not making enough of the connections. 

I mean, the NDP has said that it wants to create 500,000 new, affordable units. But they need to make connections: Who are they trying to house? Why are they not saying to us, we are deeply concerned about people in receipt of social assistance or disability entitlement? We are deeply concerned, and we know that this number of people are suffering, or we don’t know how many people are and we want to know, and we want to address that need. It’s like they kind of know there’s this housing crisis there, and I applaud the parties for going after different dimensions. But there’s just not enough there to convince me that any one of these parties is actually going to address, in a meaningful way and quickly enough, the housing crisis.

TVO.org: But can they, considering that subsidized housing and social assistance are provincial and municipal responsibilities?

Farha: Yeah, because the federal government has the spending power. They can use the spending power in all manner of ways: they can attach conditions to the monies that they flow to the provinces, territories, and municipalities for housing. There’s all this money flowing for the shelter system, for example, from the national-level government to municipal governments. 

Well, there could be some mandate that we’re going to really increase the amount of money that’s going to municipalities for homelessness, but we’re going to ensure that the money isn’t just sunk into a shelter system that is not functioning, not performing well, and not leading to good outcomes. We’re going to make sure that the money that goes toward homelessness goes toward a different approach that actually results in housing people. 

I will say the Liberals also have in their platform monies for the repurposing of office buildings, and so do the Conservatives — harnessing existing lands and properties that could be repurposed and turned into affordable housing. So we’re not waiting for new builds, per se, because a repurpose can take much less time than a complete build from scratch. The zoning for example, can be already in place, or it can be more easily dealt with. Those sorts of moves are important because the housing need is acute, and it has to be addressed on an urgent basis. 

I do think that a government could address the housing crisis quite successfully and quickly if it were willing to be very creative around expropriation of units, around what do we do with all the vacant units in Canada. What about engaging the owners of vacant units and telling them that they are part of the solution? That’s what they’re doing in Lisbon, for example. In Barcelona, they’re finding the owners of vacant units, and they’re saying, “We have a housing crisis on our hands; we need your units, so cough them up, and we’ll buy them from you.” All sorts of different things to entice them into using their units to help solve the housing crisis. Where is that creativity? Nowhere in the platforms so far. Could a government be convinced to do that once in power? I don’t know.

TVO.org: One of the reasons I’m personally interested in housing is because of my own experience with the subsidized-housing system. I don’t know how immediately obvious it is to you, but I am sitting in a wheelchair right now. I’m fairly severely disabled. I also live in Ottawa. I originally moved into an apartment that I had to use most of my disability to pay for, and it was still impossible. I had to get family assistance to do it. And it took me several years to get into subsidized housing. Because of the fragmented nature of these programs, it’s very hard for someone to even look for housing. Even when there is federal funding for subsidized housing — and I don’t know how much there was then — the province makes the rules, and the municipalities have the subsidized-housing list. In Ottawa, and I don’t know if this is still the case, when I was looking for housing, you literally had to go to an office, look through a paper binder with photos of different properties, and check off which ones you wanted to be put on the waiting list for. And there was no information about the accessibility of these buildings. 

Farha: Oh my God.

TVO.org: They would say whether it’s accessible or not. But then I would ask, is there a wheel-in shower? Are there power buttons on the doors? And the workers wouldn’t know. Eventually, I got into the place that I’m in now; I got a job. I’m paying full rent for the unit. In my case, the system worked in the way it was supposed to. But it was only able to do that because I had support. My point is, given that the system is so fragmented, even if funding is given to different affordable-housing programs, what does that mean for people who might be at a disadvantage when they’re looking for housing, whether because of disability or homelessness or some other reason? Is that actually going to make a difference to them when it comes to getting housed?

Farha: One of the things I’ve been suggesting — I’ve had some pushback, but maybe I’m misunderstood. But I do think there needs to be a new table formed. An intergovernmental table on housing affordability and homelessness. The provinces are complete outliers in this; they’re not in the conversation in the way that the municipalities and the federal government are. And it’s hugely problematic. And you’re giving me a very particular way in which it’s problematic that I didn’t even know about. And so I’ve been critiqued because it’s, like, do we need another table, more talk? 

Agenda segment, April 8, 2021: What should the government do about housing?

I do think we need more talk, actually. But a different kind of talk, between different levels of government, but also to bring in other stakeholders so it wouldn’t just be a governmental table. There should be opportunities for people to sit at the table and say, here’s the disconnect; here’s how it doesn’t work.

That’s one of the things about a human-rights frame that I really like. They call it human rights for a reason, because it’s about human beings. And the only way for us to know what the structural barriers are to adequate, secure, and affordable housing is by talking to the people who are experiencing those barriers. Governments need to hear from people who’ve experienced the barriers, Indigenous peoples in this country, racialized communities. It doesn’t mean they also don’t need to hear from developers, but they get a lot of airtime. They get a lot space at the table. 

And so my idea was to create a new table that could be nimble, that could maybe travel the country. I’m not sure what it would look like. But there has to be more intergovernmental co-operation on this with a goal that all the different levels of government commit to, and that goal should be the implementation of the human right to housing — which means ensuring access to adequate, safe, affordable housing for marginalized groups. That would at least begin to address some of those gaps and heighten the awareness of the housing ministries at provincial and territorial levels around what their human-rights obligations are. 

TVO.org: What do you think voters should keep in mind when they’re voting on the issue of affordability and housing?

Farha: I think voters have to ask themselves, what do I want my city, my town, to look like? Do I want cities in Canada to be increasingly monolithic in in terms of who can live there? Do I want a country where the central value is that everyone has a safe, adequate, affordable place to live — or do I want to live in a country where some people can access that and others can’t? What kind of a country do we want? Do we want a country where the value base is about wealth accumulation? Or do we want a country where the policies and laws are based in the idea of human well-being? 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.​​​​​​​

For more on this issue, watch the documentary Push, which follows Leilani Farha as she travels the globe, trying to understand who's being pushed out of cities and why.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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