Is There a Housing Affordability Crisis?

No there isn’t, and we should stop using this awful word.

 By Mike Chopowick, September 29, 2015 (@mchopowick)

 

When we use the word “crisis”, what comes to mind? We could say there is a refugee crisis. War and conflict are driving hundreds of thousands from their home countries, with many not surviving their journey to safer nations.

We could also say we have a global warming crisis, where the continued burning of fossil fuels is polluting the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect that will warm the planet, worsen droughts and cause many coastal cities to flood due to rising sea levels. Yes, that would be a “crisis”.

Now, does Canada have a housing affordability crisis?

The Oxford English definition of crisis is:
noun (plural crises /ˈkrʌɪsiːz/)
1. A time of intense difficulty or danger.

Does the housing situation in Canada fit this description? In Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) most recent 2014 Housing Observer report, they note something that has long described housing affordability in Canada for the past twenty years:

“In Canada, most households are able to satisfy their housing requirements through the housing market. However, there are some households whose housing needs are not being met in the market place.” CMHC, Housing Observer, 2014

This doesn’t exactly sound like a crisis.

What do the facts and numbers actually say? Almost 90% of Canadian households are able to access acceptable housing. The most recent numbers indicate that 12.5% of Canadian households are in core housing need¹. (typically a household that must spend 30% or more of its total before-tax income to pay the median rent of housing that is acceptable).

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 9.22.13 AM

While this translates into 1.6 million households, the incidence of core housing need is actually in decline, from 12.7% in 2006, and down significantly from 13.7% in 2001. Over time, a smaller percentage of households are facing housing affordability problems across Canada. By this measure, affordability is getting better, not worse.

Even for tenants, who are most likely to have trouble paying for housing, the problem is getting better, with 26.4% of renter households in core housing need in 2011, down from 28.3% in 2001.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 11.03.08 AM

Based on every measure, age group, immigrant status, and even among aboriginal households, the incidence of those in core housing need is in decline.

We do need better policy solutions on housing affordability. We need to reduce regulatory and cost barriers to developers who want to build more rental housing. We need better income support programs that recognize that 81% of households in core housing need are in the lowest income quintile. For these households, their biggest problem is inadequate incomes, not high rents.

And notice I’m not suggesting we build more social housing. Spending billions of dollars to build more social housing that will cost billions more to maintain and repair (Toronto Community Housing alone has a $2.6 billion state-of-good-repair requirement), is not the best solution. And, since no government has extra billions to spend on this venture, it makes very little sense to ask for it.

We do have a housing affordability problem in Canada. Over a million families who can’t afford shelter is not acceptable. But, provincial and federal governments can easily make improvements by reducing taxes on new housing development, streamlining the planning process, and paying a monthly housing benefit to low income renters who need it most – those who are already living in housing but have trouble affording it due to low incomes.

But, we must stop using the word crisis. Housing affordability in Canada is improving, not getting worse. Let’s discuss ways of improving it further. Calling this issue a crisis, however, creates a sky-is-falling mentality that serves no purpose, and devalues the attention we should pay to real crisis situations.

Let’s save the word crisis for severe, acute problems that require tremendous and unprecedented policy solutions that avoid untold tragedies from unfolding. Let’s not use the word crisis vainly to describe a housing policy issue (or “problem”) that is actually improving.


 

  1. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, “Housing Affordability and Need”, Housing Observer 2014.