Debunking myths about community housing: What governments and the public should know

A newly released podcast series, Demystifying Community Housing, debunks myths and explores the realities of community housing.

A construction worker uses a boom lift to move a piece of construction equipment at the site of an affordable housing project in Ottawa in September 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Canada’s Housing Plan is pledging an ambitious multilateral approach to build more housing, faster and cheaper, for diverse groups.

It includes noteworthy new funding programs and policies to preserve and expand community housing, including social, non-profit and co-operative housing.

After decades of homeowner-centred policies, the new Tenant Protection Fund and Renters’ Bill of Rights commit more protections for tenants from excessive rent increases, forced evictions and other threats to their tenancies.

Two men remove a mattress from the back of a van.
People remove a mattress from a van on moving day in Montréal on July 1, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

 

But the new housing plan fails to meet the high expectations for a human rights approach to housing, with only limited responses to rent/vacancy control and housing financialization.

It continues to prioritize the supply of market housing and pays short shrift to community housing.

Canada’s ongoing housing crisis extends beyond affordability and supply challenges. It also involves homelessness, risks to tenancy, shortage of accessible units, financialization and the lack of culturally adequate housing.

Community housing is poised to effectively tackle these insidious problems in ways the market cannot.

Huge potential

Our newly released podcast series, Demystifying Community Housing, found a strong consensus among residents, academics, housing and policy practitioners that the community housing sector has huge potential.

Accounting for just under four per cent of total housing stock, this sector faces significant barriers. The persistent neoliberal mindset underpinning Canadian housing policy has resulted in a culture of home ownership and market supremacy. The community housing sector has been siloed and snubbed, and considered secondary to home ownership and for-profit rental markets.

A man stands on the balcony of an apartment taking in a city view.
B.C. Premier David Eby takes in the view from the balcony while touring a renovated apartment unit at a housing co-operative in Burnaby, B.C., in January 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

 

Our podcast highlights Canada-wide conversations on the myths and realities of community housing, its limits and potential — as well as its past, present and future — through social, economic and political lenses.

Prevalent skepticism and misperceptions have impeded public acceptance and political will for serious policy engagement in community housing.

This is partly due to its small size, but also stems from inconsistent uses of the term “community housing” in relation to social housing and affordable housing in policy, statistics and practice.

Let’s dissect some common myths:

Myth 1: All community housing is government-subsidized

Community housing refers to housing that is owned and/or operated by governments, non-profit housing societies or housing co-operatives.

Subsidized housing, or social housing, constitutes an important part of community housing. But not all community housing projects receive government subsidies; many have a mix of social housing, below market-rate rental units and some market rental housing.

Episode 1 of the podcast delves into community housing models with varying governance structures, rent-setting schemes and tenant demographics. An underlying common thread is these models prioritize affordability and stability over profit.

Ray Sullivan of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association explains community housing.
IRPP Policy Options Podcast Special Series: Demystifying Community Housing. Episode 1., Author provided (no reuse)742 KB (download)

Myth 2: Community housing is only for the most vulnerable

Canada’s community housing to date has prioritized low-income people and those with complex housing needs, such as seniors or those on the verge of homelessness. But a small yet important segment of market-rate units house moderate- to middle-income Canadians who would otherwise be pushed out of the for-profit market.

Community housing cannot and should not serve only the most vulnerable. The podcast reveals how Canada’s social housing system once had a welfare model that served broader income groups. However, this system gradually targeted the most vulnerable due to public divestment.

It has become a common belief that community housing is scarce and should be therefore preserved only for vulnerable populations in the greatest need. This belief normalizes the scarcity of community housing instead of seeing that scarcity as a policy problem.

Canada has one of the smallest community housing sectors among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The concentration of low-income and vulnerable households in this sector only reinforces stigmas and stereotypes about it.

The podcast explores different community housing systems and how to reimagine a future with alternative models of community housing, including integrated rental systems. It also explores Black-led housing initiatives and the Indigenization and decolonization of housing solutions.

 

David Hulchanski of the University of Toronto explains rental systems.
IRPP Policy Options Podcast Special Series: Demystifying Community Housing. Episode 1., Author provided (no reuse)1.51 MB (download)

Myth 3: Community housing in disrepair, dangerous

The physical and social environments of community housing projects are common concerns.

Many believe community housing buildings are in disrepair. Although some aged housing stock has deteriorated and there are higher maintenance costs, that isn’t universal or inherent to community housing.

The 2021 Canadian Housing Survey revealed only 16 per cent of community housing tenants were unsatisfied with their living conditions. The situation is most acute in Manitoba, where only seven per cent of community housing stock is in good or excellent condition, compared to 61 per cent in British Columbia and one-third in Ontario.

There are also concerns about the social environment in community housing arising from ethno-cultural stereotypes about low-income and vulnerable populations.

However, residents and housing operators told the podcast that community housing has provided their diverse communities with affordable homes, a stable life, a social support network and occasional opportunities for asset building.

Although some community housing tenants face challenges engaging in social life, there is a strong desire for social connectedness and peer support.

 

A resident living in an accessible community housing unit talks about social support among neighbours.
IRPP Policy Options Podcast Special Series: Demystifying Community Housing. Episode 2., Author provided (no reuse)1020 KB (download)

Myth 4: Community housing is financially unsustainable

The financial viability of community housing projects is often met with skepticism. But one housing expert told the podcast how community housing projects can be financially sustainable through break-even rents that are set at a level to offset project costs over time.

Unlike for-profit developments, community housing projects can also eliminate profit margins to ensure they’re affordable or reinvest profit into the community.

Further affordability can be achieved through public lands, low-interest loans and/or cross-subsidies between units. The economies of scale of an expanded community housing sector could further lower the costs of these projects.

 

Alex Hemingway of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives explains the financial viability of community housing projects.
IRPP Policy Options Podcast Special Series: Demystifying Community Housing. Episode 3., Author provided (no reuse)1.24 MB (download)

Building a strong community housing sector

Community housing is not a silver bullet to Canada’s housing crisis. But a strong and resilient community housing sector can play a significant role in fulfilling the rights of Canadians to adequate housing.

Despite challenging funding and policy environments, our podcast illuminates community housing success stories and how tenants are supported through innovative practices, multi-sectoral partnerships and the embrace of social entrepreneurialism.

Significant challenges and limitations threaten the continued growth of the sector, necessitating a broad and holistic understanding of what community housing actually is and can do.


Yushu Zhu, Assistant Professor, Urban Studies and Public Policy, Simon Fraser University; Hanan Ali, Assistant Researcher, Housing Policy, Simon Fraser University; Meg Holden, Professor, Urban Studies and Professor of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University, and Natasha Mhuriro, Assistant Researcher, Public Policy, Simon Fraser University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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