April 16, 2001

Housing, Homelessness, Poverty -- and Free Trade in Canada
By Michael Shapcott

As security forces roll up the massive “cage” surrounding the Summit of the Americas site in Quebec City early next week, another international gathering will start down the St. Lawrence River in Montreal. The meetings have different participants and a different agenda, but there is a powerful link between the two.

The main business of the Quebec Summit is to lay the groundwork for a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a deal that would commit governments throughout the hemisphere to make trade, corporate interests and markets their top priorities. Meanwhile, at the International Forum on Social Housing, experts from Africa, Europe and the Americas will look at housing, homelessness and poverty. The forum comes just six weeks before the United Nations holds a special session at its New York headquarters called “Istanbul Plus Five”. In 1996, representatives from 171 countries met in Istanbul. These countries, including almost every nation at the Summit of the Americas, endorsed the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements. The preamble reads:

We, the Heads of State or Government and the official delegations of countries assembled at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul, Turkey from 3 to 14 June 1996, take this opportunity to endorse the universal goals of ensuring adequate shelter for all and making human settlements safer, healthier and more liveable, equitable, sustainable and productive. . .

The countries adopted the Habitat Agenda, which was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. Paragraph 39 reads:

We recognize an obligation by Governments to enable people to obtain shelter and to protect and improve dwellings and neighbourhoods. We commit ourselves to the goal of improving living and working conditions on an equitable and sustainable basis, so that everyone will have adequate shelter that is healthy, safe, secure, accessible and affordable and that includes basic services, facilities and amenities, and will enjoy freedom from discrimination in housing and legal security of tenure. . .

Paragraph 115 sets the goal of ending poverty through economic policies that create good jobs, improved education and better social services. The Habitat Agenda sets clear standards and includes a monitoring process. That includes the special U.N. session in June.

Free trade comes bundled in a political package that includes domestic policies that erode commitments like the Habitat Agenda. Free trade is based on the notion that governments should help corporate interests generate wealth through trade, then stand back and let those benefits “trickle down” to poor people. Specific provisions in free trade agreements, such as Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, hinder governments from taking direct action to meet basic human needs. Free trade says governments must let markets assign benefits and divide up wealth generated by trade.

The big problem, when it comes to housing and poverty, is that the market can’t and won’t respond to the needs of low-income households. Quite simply, they are too poor to merit any attention from corporate interests. The Habitat Agenda takes the opposite tack. It calls on governments to take positive measures, such as funding new housing and better social services, to end poverty and homelessness. 

Free trade came to Canada under the government of Brian Mulroney. During its decade in power, the Conservative government slashed more than $2 billion from housing programs, then cancelled all new housing spending in 1993. Canada went from funding 20,000 to 30,000 new social housing units every year to zero under Mulroney. The Chretien government, elected in 1993, embraced free trade. It refused to restore housing spending. In 1996, it started to transfer administration of federal housing programs to provinces and territories. Canada is the only major country in the world without a national housing policy. The same year that Ottawa abandoned housing, the then federal housing minister Diane Marleau was in Istanbul pledging her government’s support for the Habitat Agenda.

Not surprisingly, these government decisions have plunged Canada into its worst housing crisis in decades. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported that the overall rental vacancy rate in Canada's metropolitan centres fell from 2.6 per cent in October 1999 to 1.6 per cent in October of 2000. This is the lowest rate since the survey was started in 1987.


Hundreds of thousands of Canadians will experience homelessness this year, with children and families suffering the biggest increase in numbers. More than 2.2 million Canadians living in rental households are on the brink of homelessness, and millions more are just a few steps away.


The federal government is considering a modest plan to give small subsidies for new rental housing. But there will be no targets for the federal dollars, which almost certainly means that the funds will go to high-priced rental housing, which offers the best return for private investors.


Poor and homeless people have to be content with “trickle-down” housing. They can only hope that perhaps those rich tenants moving into taxpayer-subsidized luxury housing will vacate less expensive rental units. Then a slightly less-rich tenant will move into the vacant unit, creating vacancies down the line.


It’s a remarkably slender hope, but it’s all that free-trade-oriented governments have on offer. The role of government under free trade is to assist the private market, not meet the basic needs of real people.


Michael Shapcott is a long-time housing advocate and is a Research Associate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies. He is completing a non-governmental report to the United Nations on Canada’s compliance with the Habitat Agenda and the Istanbul Declaration. He is leading a workshop at the international forum in Montreal.

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