jacline-a-nymanIn a few days, the federal government will unveil the long-awaited national housing strategy. Not only is the federal government re-entering the housing arena in a substantial way for the first time in a quarter-century — $11.2-billion has been budgeted, with more seemingly poised to come — but the process itself offers tremendous hope that the investments will spur transformational social change.

On National Philanthropy Day, I cannot help but hope for the kind of transformational change that will truly celebrate the efforts of the many people and organizations involved in helping homeless and under-housed Canadians.

Each year, United Ways and other charities raise millions of dollars to help alleviate the worst symptoms of homelessness, but there is rising frustration among donors and homeless and under-housed Canadians, who’ve concluded that Band-Aid solutions alone are not enough. Lasting change to these persistent problems requires better policy and a clear strategy that delivers real improvement in housing affordability.

The federal retreat from affordable housing, which began in the tight-spending 1990s, continued until the current government came to office, promising to end the neglect with renewed investment and development of a National Housing Strategy.

For years, the dialogue centered more on the variety of opinions than on cohesive directions to guide housing solutions. What is public investment intended to do? What roles should various levels of government play? All too often, key stakeholders were unable to find common ground on these and other critical issues. The result was a multiplicity of opinions but very little progress.

Federal leadership is essential to charting a long-term housing strategy that ensures a safe, affordable home is a reality for every Canadian. But even the best-meaning government would struggle to introduce such policy while distracted by a vocal and often contradictory array of stakeholder opinions. And, without a better process, Canada’s national housing strategy might well have ended up filled with risk-averse measures: well-intended, but better suited for placation than for transformation.

This time, however, the federal government is in a position to deal with a much more united group of stakeholders, which should free the government to act more boldly and spend more effectively than before. What’s changed?

Shortly after the 2015 election the process changed. Key stakeholders began working together to focus on evidence-based research informing the challenges and solutions. Charities, foundations, private landlords and home builders, together with social-housing providers, co-ops and non-profit organizations, began building the National Housing Collaborative (NHC), with United Way Centraide Canada acting as a convenor.

Members hashed out an interconnected set of common planks, and tested them with stakeholders across the country. These were then presented to the government, along with detailed suggestions for programming: a national initiative to end homelessness; a portable housing benefit to help move renters out of poverty; tools to maintain and increase construction of affordable rentals; and, resources to protect the existing stock of social housing.

We have worked diligently together to impress upon the federal government the importance that these priorities be addressed substantially in the national housing strategy.

It’s been challenging to keep such a diverse group of stakeholders focused on a common mission for nearly two years, but thanks to their extraordinary commitment and the high degree of trust and respect they’ve developed, everyone is still at the table, working on innovative solutions together.

The NHC is just part of this conversation, of course. The federal government must work with provincial, municipal and indigenous governments and other stakeholders to implement its policy goals. Because of this newfound unity, Canada is that much closer to a new national housing strategy — and much closer to transformational change that will chart the course to greater justice and economic security for all Canadians.

Dr. Jacline Nyman
President & CEO
United Way Centraide Canada

This opinion article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

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