Lots of speculation about the throne speech. Some sources predict a new commitment to low income housing. We all know there are lots of homeless people and more people who cannot rent an apartment with 30% of their income. Providing housing through government programs is difficult and expensive. With huge waiting lists in most cities, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to provide adequate housing to all who need it.
Moreover, affordable housing is not the only housing issue, as COVID has clearly demonstrated. Housing and care combinations for seniors and adults with disabilities are too expensive and often either unavailable or of low quality. And when we consider appropriate, safe housing in a supportive community, the problems go well beyond income.
Across the country, there are groups of people attempting to form co-housing groups and hoping to get into some form of collective or cooperative housing. But these groups often fail to launch and when they do succeed, it is usually after a large number of people have become disappointed and left the group. The barriers to small groups going through the standard development process are really large.
At the same time, every community in the country has seniors who are living in houses too big for them to use or manage but they don’t want to leave their community, with nearby family and friends. These people often need services in their homes but providing public or private support to people who are scattered across cities is inefficient and expensive. We need to cluster services around clusters of people to get better quality at an affordable cost.
So perhaps governments should be thinking about unleashing the dedication, creativity and energy of communities to respond to these various needs. It wouldn’t be the first time that governments called on communities to help meet pressing needs. In recent years for example, community groups have been cosponsoring immigrants to come and settle in their community. These groups have not only provided part of the funding, but have also organized volunteers to provide a welcoming atmosphere and personalized assistance to immigrant families to integrate into Canadian society. By all accounts, this is turning out to be a fabulous success. It results in happier people and communities. And faster and more successful integration results in more skilled workers, higher incomes, and better tax revenues back to the government. An all-round success story.
So how can we do that for housing?
One way would be to provide seed funding for community associations or coalitions of community groups to organize community housing trusts. These would be legally-incorporated nonprofit organizations with charitable status, dedicated to meeting the diverse housing needs in their communities.
The Community Housing Trust could:
- assemble resources of various kinds – volunteers and paid staff, make purchases or lease, accept financial and property donations (including legacy donations), develop agreements with community or public institutions for co-development of owned properties, etc.
- organize nonprofit renovation and expansion of homes of seniors in the community in order to add more units with minimal disturbance.
- work with service providers (public and private) to ensure convenient, efficient and personalized services (medical, social, recreational) in or near new residential structures.
- partner with commercial contractors in larger scale developments. In so doing they could ensure that new housing developments incorporate accessibility provisions, common space for mutual support among residents, and access to community facilities and necessities like public transportation.
- ensure that developments are inclusive of people with special needs, including affordability for a portion of low-income residents.
- assist existing cooperative housing groups to expand their communities and help new cooperative, co-housing and co-living groups to organize and develop.
- work with churches to make mutually-beneficial use of existing properties which are becoming a financial burden on some.
- take advantage of shifts in property value and use that result from COVID and encourage mixed residential/commercial developments that respond to community needs.
Of course, just seed funding will not be enough. CMHC should also provide a combination of lower mortgage interest and partial equity financing for these community housing trusts once they are up and running. They should also favour applications to their commercial financing and insurance portfolios which have the support of community associations and community housing trusts.
The new community-based housing and service combinations that could be provided by a community housing trust would merit help from municipal planning, zoning and approval committees. At the level of the province, health care funding could be mobilized to provide greater efficiency of delivery, and school systems could consider new educational models that are more integrated in communities where more parents might be working from home. Banks and other financial institutions would need to recognize the legitimacy of the new organizational structures. Then we could see a broad community-based process of environmentally responsible social and economic development which would have a huge impact on our material and social wellbeing.