Gimme Shelter, For The Homeless: Freedom to build would lower costs and enable homes for the homeless

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Fergus Hodgson


Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
~The Rolling Stones
Numbers on the homeless in Canada vary, but regardless of which estimate one accepts, any homeless person is one too many. Tragically, the policy responses, while numerous, have not addressed the primary cause: the restrained supply of private housing, which for the last two decades has been a significant reason the homeless proportion of the population has grown so rapidly.
Given Canada’s relative economic prosperity, homelessness would seem to be unwarranted, and our cold climate makes it especially concerning. Every winter at least one homeless person freezes to death, and by not correctly addressing the associated suffering, which ought to jolt us into action, we perpetuate what has become a growing tax burden.
Canadian taxpayers already fund an estimated $6-billion for direct assistance to the homeless. Additionally, homelessness amplifies associated problems that impede participation in society and place expenses elsewhere. Without a home, individuals are more likely to lose their job, suffer from malnutrition and fall into substance abuse. Increased flow-on costs to unemployment assistance, medical care and policing are inevitable.
While charities and government agencies have responded, their efforts appear futile, as the homeless population continues to expand. Federal public housing assets are now more than a third of a trillion dollars, more than double what they were three years ago. Yet, the waiting list has grown even more rapidly and remains years long. Voluntary and state-sponsored shelters consistently fill beyond their intended capacity, particularly during these winter months.
A recent CBC report on homelessness in Saskatchewan provided an insight into the key, unresolved problem. Unemployment in Saskatchewan is only 4.5 percent, yet the shelters are at capacity. According to a Regina shelter worker, “It used to be easy to find a place, hard to find a job. Now it’s the other way around.” Charitable agencies and municipal surveys affirm that a majority of the homeless are willing and physically capable of employment, and approximately half already have jobs; they simply cannot afford housing.
As housing costs have greatly outpaced wage increases, a minimum wage or low paying job now fails to cover the cost of maintaining a residence in Canada’s major cities. Calgary serves as just one example. During the past decade, incomes in the city increased by 34 per cent, yet house prices increased 156 per cent. Unsurprisingly, the Calgary Housing Company, the municipal low-cost housing provider, reports a waiting list of 4,200 individuals.
Higher house prices tend to draw more resources into the construction industry. However, that capital inflow has been channeled away from low-cost housing by a plethora of impediments: onerous building codes and inspections, city green belts and zoning ordinances, approval and consultation delays, and mandatory licensing within the relevant professional or journeymen designations. These restraints promote homogeneous, middle-class neighbourhoods, and they artificially inflate the cost of housing while limiting the consumer’s discretion over quality.
The more invasive deed mandates, such as lot size requirements and single-family restrictions, are perhaps the most perverse. Such rules stop poorer families from combining their purchasing power and sharing a home, and they insure the homes fit the desired profile of the town planners, not the profile of those who need them most. Consequently, these policies tend to increase the supply of housing suitable for middle- and upper-class people while restraining the supply of housing at the bottom of the spectrum.
These effects of building regulations are felt most strongly over the long-term, particularly in cities experiencing steady growth and an influx of migrants. While the barriers may have limited effect on existing homes and businesses, the less desirable outcomes accumulate over the decades. The lack of new, consumer-driven housing is not easily visible, even if the symptom, homelessness, is.
The prevailing focus on government housing and short-term treatment for homeless is like placing an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. It may be necessary after the fact, but it does not address why so many people fall off the edge in the first place. Rather than address the symptom – homelessness – governments should address the cause – a lack of housing – and do away with the numerous, shortsighted and destructive impediments to housing access.