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'Get dirty, get involved': Advocate pushes York on housing crisis

Housing affordability task force hears plea to prevent housing as commodity, and need for more significant government action
20200109 york region admin centre 2
York Region Administrative Centre in Newmarket. Supplied photo/Region of York

York regional councillors slammed the efforts of upper levels of government to address the housing crisis as they heard the need for massive changes.

Global director of The Shift Leilana Farha presented to York Region’s housing affordability task force today about the need for housing as a human right, not as a commodity. The former UN special rapporteur on the right to housing addressed the crisis and said efforts to address it have not gone far enough.

Farha said governments need to be leaders to keep housing from being too much of a commodity. She said it will take cities having courage and taking significant action to improve the situation.

“Keep every affordable unit you have in York Region,” she said. “You will be up against real-estate investment trusts, whose entire business model is based on raising rents ... You guys really have to roll up your sleeves, get dirty and get involved." 

The Shift is an international organization that advocates for housing as a human right. It encourages states to regulate the impact of the private market on housing.

Farha highlighted the federal government's role in addressing the housing crisis, adding that York Region cannot solve its housing problems on its own. She said the perpetuation of the housing crisis is not surprising, with Canada having “one of the most neoliberal housing systems in the world.”

“I want you to query whether you can rely on actors who have contributed to the housing crisis. Whether it’s the federal government, provincial government,” she said. “Are we just going to have the same conversations, the same policies? … All actors engaged in housing are going to have to change their modus operandi.

“I don’t believe the federal government or provincial, territorial governments are committed to solving the housing crisis because it means a kind of disruption,” she added.

Mayor John Taylor said the change has to occur at the upper levels, but York Region also has to lead at its level to advocate for better. 

He added policy changes are required, in addition to more financial support. 

“It’s one thing to say to the federal government and provincial government, more money. But we have to be ready to embrace some policy change,” he said, suggesting that provincial legislation should change to allow them to adjust development charges based on the type of development. 

Addressing homelessness is also part of the housing picture. Taylor said the additional supports in the pandemic helped, but with those supports fading, homelessness has become more prevalent in Newmarket.

“In the summer, it has multiplied dramatically,” he said. “Residents complaining in every neighbourhood … This is a challenge right now as COVID supports and options have wound down.” 

Vaughan Maurizio Bevilacqua said historically, government intervention has been key to getting more affordable housing built.

“Incrementalism, in this particular case, is not enough. You need a big bang in housing … At the end of the day, without funding, it becomes quite challenging.” 

Governments will need to be pushed, Fahra said. She described the conversation with York Region as one of the best she has had with a “subnational government.”

“So far as we have a housing crisis and no one is willing to push anyone,” she said. “Then federalism isn’t working, then we need a different political system, and we all know we’re not going there.”