Housing Policy/Programs in Canada

Let us acknowledge that spaces and land upon which housing in Canada is built is not our own, and it is shared and cared for collectively by the Indigenous and First Nations Peoples of Turtle Island. This is important to remember, because Canada’s housing policy is the foundation for the ongoing expropriation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands, relations, cultures, practices, and knowledge systems.

Housing policy was linked to land appropriation and the development of infrastructure systems (ports, railways, trade routes, trading posts…). Where colonial political and infrastructure systems moved across the country, colonial settlements followed. As Canada industrialised, settlers from the country moved to factory towns, factory towns eventually grew into cities, and urban expansion and wealth accumulation contributed to suburban expansion. In short, immigration and industrialization contributed to increases in population, combined with post-war economic and social conditions contributing to population booms and busts and the need to compete in the global market — Canada has developed a perpetual need for housing.

Canadian governments have intervened in the private housing market to stimulate the economy and help Canadian citizens in need, but it’s a delicate balance that often tilts in favour of the economy. Until the 1970s, housing policy was almost exclusively governed by the federal government, municipalities, and private housing developers — mostly, because until the great depression, housing policy was largely linked to social, economic, and political developments. The first piece of federal housing policy was the Dominion Housing Act (1935), a federal piece of legislation financed the development of 4,900 units of housing over 3 years.

The DHA was a response to rapidly falling incomes and unemployment preceding the Great Depression, and the consolidation of housing developers in the private market. As we can see in the Table 1 below, the construction of new housing fell in conjunction with employment levels, while from 1929-1935, most housing was being built in residential neighbourhoods, instead of urban. Policy like the DHA was the federal government's way of intervening on the housing market to balance out the demand for housing and low[er] interest financing for future homeowners. Later to be characterised as a period of urban decline — increasingly diverse urban centres witnessed a progressive decrease in public funding, while the development of residential/single-family homes rapidly expanded.

Follow-up policies like the Federal Home Improvement Plan (1937) provided subsidised interest rates on rehabilitation loans to 66 900 homes, and later the first National Housing Act (NHA) was passed in 1938. The government later established Wartime Housing Limited (1941-1947), a crown corporation that built 45,930 rental housing units and repair and modified existing housing to accommodate the return of veterans These acts served the dual purposes of providing housing and creating employment opportunities to meet the needs of returning veterans, immigrants and people moving from rural to urban centres. Moreover, the created a standard for the government to intervene in the private market, creating new programs that stimulated the private housing market by providing mortgages at reasonable interest rates to promote both homeownership and rental housing. The Wartime Corporation eventually became the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

The NHA and related legislation in 1949 was broadened to include federal-provincial programs (sometimes with municipal participation) for social housing, or publicly owned and provincially managed housing for low income, seniors, and differently abled folks. From 1935 to the 1970s, government programs supported the development of 33% of new housing, the majority of which supported private market - as opposed to social - housing. Less than 5% of all new housing was designed specifically for low[er] income Canadians.

In 1954, the Bank Act (1954) became a piece of housing legislation that granted the federal government the ability to insure mortgage loans made by private investors against borrower default — it was the federal government's way of reducing its direct involvement in the lending and insuring homeowners during the post-war housing boom. New additions to Canadian housing averaged 77,000 units in the 1950s, 155,000 in the 1960s and 229,100 in the 1970s.

From 1969 to 1974, public housing programs underwent evaluation to combat rising inflation associated with the Great Recession, and $200 million were thrust into existing federal programs (excluding urban renewal programs) and joined by provincial and municipal neighbourhood improvement and residential rehabilitation programs were tasked with redeveloping inner city neighbourhoods for low-income Canadians.

By 1974, “...the NHA was amended: existing public housing was to continue to provide accommodation for low-income households; rural and First Nations programs were added; and new social housing was to be built by municipalities, non-profit organisations and co-operatives. The legislation encouraged consumers to be more involved in the design and management of housing and encouraged a mix of modest and lower income households. The federal government was the main source of funding for social housing, with some assistance from provinces and cities” (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2015).

Changes to the Tax Act (1971) introduced incentives to stimulate home ownership (i.e. tax exempt savings plans, assisted home ownership programs…) and excluded principal residents from capital gains taxes. The federal government also supported private rental market housing via grants, loans, and tax concessions, meaning that throughout the 1970s, government programs assisted the development of 40% of all housing completions. As the same time, provincial and city governments became more involved in housing and housing policy - specifically the province of Onatrio. The province created housing departments and assumed responsibility to policy development and fund allocation priorities; they offered homeownership grants and funded non-market housing; and they assisted renters via tax credits, shelter allowances, and rent controls.

Eventually in 1978, the NHA was amended again, and later in 1982 with negotiation surrounding the Canada Act (1982) and the Constitution Act (1982) , supported the offloading of domestic housing activities on the provinces and municipalities, in turn pressuring municipalities to create non-profit corporations to build and manage social housing.

Between 1974 and 1986, governments at all levels shifted to funding non-profit groups like churches, cooperative, and municipal agencies to provide and manage housing — more than 220,000 units of non-profit and/or cooperative housing were built during this 12 year period. It is also worth noting that between 1947 and 1986, 253,500 social housing units were built across Canada, the largest proportion of which (43%) were located in Ontario. Overall, more than 473,500 units of non-profit, cooperative, or social housing were built between the 1940s - 1990s with the support of public housing programs/financing and policy.

Social housing program, however, would suffer in the wake of the Great Recession and after extensive review between 1979 - 1984. “Coinciding with fiscal restraint both to eliminate the operating deficit and reduce the national debt, governments examined the ongoing cost of housing subsidies. Housing funds were reduced and directly targeted to low-income people. More emphasis was placed upon renovation of existing housing” (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2015).

Most rental assistance programs were also cut in the mid-1980s, while the CMHC pivoted towards improving housing quality via rehabilitation programs for homeowners, rental units, rental conversions, and multi-tenant (rooming) houses in both urban and rural areas. By 1993, the federal government cut funding for the development of new social housing, and by 1996, it transferred the management and subsidising of existing social housing to the provinces. Since 1995, British Columbia and Quebec have been the only provinces to directly fund the development of new social housing.

In a span of three decades, housing was downloaded from the federal government, to the provincial government, and between the 1990s-2000s, we began to see the trends of offloading housing from the provinces to the municipalities. Municipalities began deploying by-laws and zoning related restrictions to preserve and provide affordable rental housing solutions that largely relied on the market for the development of new housing. Via limitations on the conversion of rental units to ownership, rezoning of new sites for housing to deflect pressure on existing stock, permitting second units family homes, developing in-fill zoning plans, and funding tenant assistance programs – municipalities would encourage developer to build new housing, while setting conditions on the new developments to include a portion of units to be affordable housing. By the 2000s, we began to see the rise of the face of the contemporary housing crisis in Canada — the rise of unhoused and homeless populations.

“Through the 1990s annual housing completions averaged 145 000 units, responding to immigration, increasing incomes of ageing baby boomers (9% of whom have purchased a second home) and baby boomers' children entering the housing market. During the early 2000s annual completions increased to an average of 212 924 units per year but dropped in 2008 as Canada experienced the worldwide economic recession.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2015).

And yet, from the 2000s to now, we’re witnessing a delicate balance between the focusses on sustainable design to reduce energy demands and GreenHouse Gas Emissions realised via programs like the federal Equilibrium Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative. We’ve also witnessed a shift towards the development/redevelopment of more vertically integrated and compact housing in urban areas, while working towards in-filling in existing housing neighbourhoods to encourage housing folks closer to downtown jobs and public infrastructure networks (i..e public transit, hospitals…) to make more efficient and sustainable uses of land and services.