Should Canada make adequate housing a human right?
OTTAWA—Adam Vaughan says it’s cool.
Earlier this week, the Liberal MP for Spadina—Fort York was singled out in a policy smackdown by the United Nations special rapporteur on housing, Leilani Farha.
Through an open letter to cabinet officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Farha voiced her concern with the Liberal government’s signature National Housing Strategy. She’s worried the 10-year, $40-billion blueprint “does not reference and guarantee” the human right to adequate housing, and pointed to Vaughan’s comments in the House of Commons — that such a right could encourage people to “prosecute their way into housing” — as basis for her concern.
Vaughan, who serves as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, later played down Farha’s worries. It’s true the government isn’t planning to legally enshrine the right to adequate housing — but that’s okay, because the housing strategy will lead to the “progressive realization of housing rights,” he said.
“We are not walking away from that commitment one iota,” said Vaughan.
You’re probably asking: what’s the difference?
It’s best to start at the beginning.
The notion of a right to housing was trumpeted in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which named it among the rights to “adequate” food, clothing and medical care. Almost 30 years later, in 1976, Canada signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees a similar right to “adequate” housing.
Despite this, the right to adequate housing isn’t on the books in Canada. It’s not in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s not recognized by the courts. It’s never been enshrined in law.
Farha and other housing activists in Canada have wanted that to change for a long time.
For Farha, who is also executive director of Canada Without Poverty, the lack of a legal right to housing undermines the government’s housing strategy. Without it, all the long-term programs promised by the Liberals — such as: $4.3 billion to repair degrading social housing; a $6-billion low-income housing benefit; $2.2 billion to tackle chronic homelessness; $16 billion for loans and contributions to repair and build new housing — could be slashed or dismantled by future governments. There is effectively no assurance that government will be there to help the homeless and ensure there is affordable housing for those who need it, she said.
“You want something that will stand the test of time. That’s the idea of human rights. Human rights are universal, regardless of what government comes into place,” she said.
For Vaughan, the better approach is to improve housing through government policy, because the human right would be meaningless without a system to provide proper housing. Besides, he said, the UN covenant “doesn’t require us to have a right to housing; it requires us to make sure that people’s access to housing is guaranteed,” he said.
A legally-enshrined right could also spur individuals to argue in court that government has to provide immediate housing, Vaughan said. “If you get evicted because you didn’t pay rent, do you still have a charter right to a house?” he asked. “The goal here is not to create a legal right for individuals. It’s to create a systemic response to systemic problems in a new national housing system.”
Farha calls Vaughan’s warning of individual cases a “red herring.” She said the spirit of the internationally-recognized right is already systemic in nature; it was never intended to force governments to provide immediate housing for individuals, but to ensure states don’t ignore the needs of the homeless and precariously-housed.
“It doesn’t mean that anyone can go and demand a house,” she said.
D.J. Larkin, a lawyer at Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, also argued the right wouldn’t create an immediate requirement to house everybody. Rather, it could come into play in a more generalized way — to protect access to housing. One example would be when the need exists for new housing in a community, but political circumstances create obstacles, such as when people object to the placement of a new shelter in their neighbourhood, she said.
“We should be able to go to court to say that municipality, that city, that province, is acting in contravention to the right to adequate housing,” she said.
There may be other reasons the government doesn’t want to legislate a right to adequate housing — like money, said David Hulchanski, a professor in housing and community development at the University of Toronto. If the right were enshrined, advocacy groups could pressure the government through the courts or a tribunal to spend more money to build up Canada’s stock of social housing, which has languished since the 1990s, when the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien downloaded housing responsibilities to the provinces, he said.
The government’s strategy does include the creation of a “housing advocate” to examine where policies are falling short, and to Parliament every three years. Governments, in other words, will get political pressure to create a good housing system, rather than face a legal requirement to ensure adequate housing.
That is the key point of the dispute over the recognition of the right, said Hulchanski. Enshrining the right to housing would force the government’s hand and create an external measure of accountability — whether through the courts or another body like a human rights tribunal — on its housing policies.
“They don’t want anybody overseeing any potential lack of progress,” he said. “(The government) is saying trust us. We wrote a document. Isn’t it nice?”
While Farha said she had a “constructive” conversation with Vaughan about these issues after she posted her open letter, her concerns have not been assuaged.
“The government cannot review its own progress and cannot only be accountable to itself,” she said.
“My feeling is that this government actually doesn’t want to do anything much different from what any government has done before.”