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Written by: Patricia Streich, Housing Consultant & Researcher

Canada’s 2017 National Housing Strategy (NHS) declared that all Canadians have a right to housing: people deserve a place to live that they can afford with 30% of their incomes.   Non-profit housing organizations have been meeting the affordability goal for decades with housing that is stable, secure, allows people to age-in-place and protects tenants from exorbitant rent increases.   

This post presents views about the ‘right to housing’ from the Third Sector (non-profits and co-operatives) in Kingston, Ontario and is based on evidence from a 2021 study that called on experienced housing non-profits and non-profit developers to work together for appropriate housing that meets people’s needs in face of rising rents.   

Rents in Kingston escalate every year, just like they do in larger cities.  Already,  at least one in three Kingston renters need housing that costs less than 30% of their incomes.   Most non-profits and co-ops have mixes of rents and incomes so that they meet some of the demand for lower-income, rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing.  Non-profits help cities maintain their targets for “RGI units” because there are just not enough municipal RGI units.  They help people waiting for an affordable place to call home, and they take some pressure off the waiting lists and waiting times for public RGI units.  In Kingston, the non-profits and co-ops together provide 40% of the target in the municipal service manager agreement – more than 800 units which cannot be covered by private landlords who are reluctant to enter into old-style rent supplement agreements in this tight rental market. 

Put another way, if all these non-profits and co-ops stopped providing RGI units, the Kingston wait list would grow over night to more than 2,000 applicants and wait times would likely double.  There are few other options to help.  A few people might receive the new ‘portable housing benefit’ if they can find something to rent, but lower rent units are in short supply and rents keep rising.  Kingston is slated to receive about 30 of these new benefits.  These 30 households will have some help with their rents but even that does not bring down their rent to 30% of their income.  There are already over 1,200 households on the local wait list for an affordable place to call home.  Many wait for years.   

As non-profits in Kingston told us, they are proud of their record to keep rents affordable for the last three or four decades, with high occupancy and low turnover rates.  Their rents are substantially lower than current market rents for those types of apartments.

However, in their view, the right to housing means even more than long-term affordability.  It means the right to safe and secure housing that is affordable and supports people to stay in their communities.  As we heard, the right to housing means different things to different people: for families, it can mean ‘a safe place to start your day and where you come to at the end of the day’; for seniors, it may mean the right to stay in your familiar neighbourhood, a place where you know people and places, and still feel connected to social networks, can stay independent, and have a better quality of life;  and, for people with modest incomes, it means protection from large rent increases or loss of their housing due to property sales or redevelopment.  The Third Sector meets the diversity of needs with equitable and inclusive communities.

What we heard centred around the right to ‘security’ and safe housing tenure in stable communities, with built-in supports and the community benefits from the non-profit approach.  Stability, safety and security are multi-faceted and an integral part of ‘human rights’.   Safety in your own space, in your building and in your neighbourhood comes from knowing your neighbours, the social connections, and mutual supports.   Secure tenure is fundamental for working families, seniors who want to age-in-place, and everyone depending on insecure jobs or income support.  Many non-profits have social activities which build the spirit of a ‘community’ with a strong foundation and roots in the wider community.  All of these elements are core values in a non-profit approach for communities with housing rights.   

People involved in non-profits and co-ops have been advocating for this housing alternative since the 1970s, with great strides in the 1980s and 1990s.  In the past decade, some non-profits had funding from various ‘affordable housing initiatives’, and some were able to add RGI-type units in new ‘mixed market affordable’ developments but only with rent supplements to make rents ‘affordable’ with 30% of people’s incomes. These investments were simply insufficient to meet demand.

Expanding non-profit housing is essential for the current National Housing Strategy to achieve its goal for places to call home in the next six years.  However, deeper funding under the NHS for non-profits is needed to offset the high costs of development today for new affordable places to call home.  Even with ‘free land’, some equity, and added municipal incentives, project financing cannot bridge the gap to make projects viable.  Initial (start-up) funding to offset pre-development costs needs to be re-instated due to the very lengthy planning processes before project financing is approved.    

Non-profit housing development is just as challenging as any other development, and Canada has experienced non-profit developers and development consultants that work with groups on new non-profit housing. At the Fall 2021 Kingston Housing Forum, hosted by the Social Planning Council of Kingston & District, CAHDCO and Re/Fact Consulting from Ottawa laid out ways to work with non-profit developers to build more non-profit housing.  In response, the SPCKD called for collaborations among non-profits to develop more housing people can afford, and is taking action to support community efforts.   See reports and presentation on its website. (www.spckingstonanddistrict.org)  Many social planning councils and community organizations elsewhere also support their own communities to promote and support their housing organizations to help improve housing.  

All people in Canada have the right to appropriate housing that they can afford and, as the Kingston case shows, a well-resourced and collaborative Third Sector is a pivotal player in accelerating and amplifying access to this right.

Too few would attain their right to housing without these non-profits.  We need to keep these stable and strong as well as building more non-profit units that stay affordable long-term to reach more of the housing need.