In honour of National Housing Day, I’m live blogging from the National Housing Conference in Ottawa. One year after the adoption of the country’s first National Housing Strategy, CMHC is hosting housing experts from around the world on topics as diverse as social inequality and innovative financing tools.

Yesterday’s keynote speaker was architect Douglas Cardinal, who spoke about the different worldview between Indigenous and settler cultures. He gave examples of his engagement with communities, learning from their cultural practices and integrating their daily routines into his designs. There was a very interesting plenary session on the increasing commodification of the housing market with Manuel Aalbers (KU Leuven), Michael Oxley (Cambridge University), Leilani Farha (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing), Paul Kershaw (UBC), Susanne Soederberg (Queens), and CMHC President/CEO Evan Siddall. In a session on financial tools, presenters discussed energy-efficient mortgages and guidelines on energy efficiency and enforcement tools for rental buildings in the European Union. A session on alternative housing models featured a mixed-income cooperative model from Winnipeg (Blair Hamilton, Co-operative Housing Federation), tenancy in common ownership from San Francisco (Rosemarie MacGuinness, Sirkin Law), community micro-investments in local businesses from Portland (John Haines, Community Investment Trust), and fractional property investment from Australia (Sibel Buyukbaykal, Brick X).

Today’s keynote is Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. The UK is now the country with highest income inequality in Europe. He commented that in countries where inequality is considered a real issue, like Norway, they’re trying hard to reduce it–in the UK and the US governments prioritized social inequality in the 1950s up until the early 1980s, but now they blame poor families for not trying hard enough. Since 2004, families having to live in the private rental market, where they pay exorbitant rents and can be evicted with only two months notice, have increased dramatically–eviction from private rental units is the most rapidly increasing reason for homelessness. However, income inequality has peaked in all OECD countries. Dorling concluded by saying that after the Grenfell Tower fire, housing has become central to UK politics. He suggested looking at second, third, or fourth homes that are empty and what is done about this in other countries like the Netherlands and Austria (e.g. increased property taxes, empty home taxes); deciding that everyone would pay 30% or lower for their housing by a certain year and then understanding what targets have to be met each year to achieve that; inspecting properties and allowing the state to take them over if they are not well maintained; allowing tenants to report poorly maintained properties and allow them to be taken over by the local housing authority.

The keynote plenary session today featured bankers from the Bank of Canada (Carolyn Wilkins), Reserve Bank of Australia (Carl Schwartz), Finansinspktionen (Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority) (Erik Thedeen), and the Central Bank of Ireland (Roberrt Kelly). In Canada, mortgage rules have been tightened since 2016 and the Bank of Canada raised interest rates, decreasing vulnerability among owner households with new mortgages (those who had borrowed up to 450% of their incomes). In Sweden, strong economic growth has contributed to rising housing costs since 2012. They introduced a loan to value cap and an increase in percent amortization for the loan to income ratio, and have seen a decrease in those vulnerable owner households. Australia introduced investor lending restrictions as well. In Ireland they increased the downpayment amounts to 10%  for first time buyers and capped mortgages at 3.5 times their income; for second and subsequent buyers it was 20% deposit and the same mortgage cap. This helped stabilize the situation, but force first-time buyers to spend longer saving their downpayment, which will maintain pressure on rental housing.

In a session on focused on rental housing, Marika Albert (BC Non-Profit Housing Association) discussed the Canadian Rental Housing Index they created with partners across the country, using data from the 2016 long-form Census. According to Catherine Leviten-Reid (Cape Breton University), Cape Breton Regional Municipality conducted a study on their own, as the secondary rental housing market is not captured by the CMHC Rental Housing reports. They found that 43% of rentals and most new construction is in the secondary market, and that one and two bedroom units are more expensive than purpose-built rental units–three quarters of the secondary market units did not include all utilities. Just over a third of secondary market units were marketed towards seniors, and only 8% towards professionals. Nathanel Lauster (UBC) discussed the growth in condominiums as investment-rental opportunities, but contributes to more fragile tenancies as landlords can more easily claim the property for their own use. Rents are also more expensive than for purpose-built rentals, rented condo units have a higher turnover, and the typical households are couples rather than single parents or two parents with children. Jacob Cosman (Johns Hopkins University) discussed the declining rate of new housing construction in the US since the recession, and how in most cities it’s one or two companies that are building the majority of new units. There are fewer units built in general, less supply in the pipeline, and higher price volatility because of the monopoly. He hasn’t seen this same pattern in Canada as we didn’t see a major decrease in construction after the US housing market collapsed.

Our panel on smart growth: Stu Niebergall (Regina Home Builders Association), Oualid Moussouni (University of Quebec at Montreal), me, Cheryll Case (CP Planning), and Sean Gadon (City of Toronto)

We had an interesting update from Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Status of Women, on the role that women will be playing in the new National Housing Strategy. A Pan-Canadian Symposium on Women’s Housing was held with a range of women across the country directly impacted by women’s housing and homelessness. They produced six calls to action including guaranteed annual income, including women with lived experience in policy development and roundtables, north and Inuit housing, transparency with the National Housing Strategy and National Poverty Strategy, and support for a symposium next year. CMHC President Evan Siddall agreed to many of these, and CMHC will be publishing the report from the symposium within a few weeks.

The final plenary session looked at the impact of private capital on social outcomes. Nancy Neamtan (Territoires innovants en économie sociale et solidaire) forcused on solidarity finance: tools, institutions, actors that are designed for collective initiatives and enterprises (non-profits and co-ops), which are co-built with community actors. In Québec, there has been a 32% growth in this type of financing from 2013-2016. Some examples include Réseau MicroEntreprendre, which has 15 funds in 12 regions, the Chantier de l’économie social Trust in 2007, a $52.8 million fund in patient capital for collective organizations and enterprises, and $66 million invested in 249 projects in the province. There’s a fund for cooperative student housing (FILE) which was initiated and supported by student associations and youth organizations and will allow construction of co-op housing units, and one to assist community housing renovations (FARHC). Major challenges include scaling these efforts up, continuing to attract new categories of investors, and mobilizing private capital in long term (bond type) investments. Shayne Ramsay (BC Housing) discussed the new Housing Investment Corporation, which allows non-profits to access national and international capital–it’s funded partly by a $20 million contribution from CMHC, which allows the HIC to leverage $400 million in loans, and TD and Scotiabank are co-leads on the project. This allows the money to be available regardless of the federal government’s priorities, and enables long-term fixed-rate mortgages (30 years +) for non-profits, because it aggregating non-profits together rather than treating each one like a small, individual borrower. Their first loans will be given in the next few weeks, focused on new housing and meeting the housing innovation fund criteria. Michael Oxley (Cambridge University) mentioned that non-profit housing associations in the UK raise money through selling their own bonds and by borrowing from traditional lenders, as well as the Housing Finance Corporation. Inclusionary zoning is also increasing in importance–it contributed to over 40% of affordable housing starts from 2014-2016. Tax concessions have been granted in other countries (e.g. Germany) to developer who agree to provide rental units at below-market rents to low income households. Tara Vrooman (Vancity).

A great effort from CMHC in bringing together a very diverse group of people to discuss affordable housing, including non-profit staff, people with lived expertise, government officials, and researchers!

Social justice issues have been headline news in the past year, from the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017 to the #MeToo movement, from Standing Rock to BC’s refusal to implement the Kinder Morgan pipeline. It’s a critical time for young people to learn about equity and justice issues, and what they mean for planners.

The 2018 Winter term marks the second time I’ve taught a Social Justice course at the Dalhousie School of Planning. The course is somewhat of a novelty at a school that largely focuses on urban design and technical skills such as GIS, which is probably one reason students seem to like it. For me, social planning is such a critical component of a planner’s work that I’m not sure how it can be absent from a planning education. This is undoubtedly due to my training at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning, where social planning and environmental planning/ sustainability were the two foundational sub-disciplines.

Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of environmental justice”, is one of the authors assigned in the course. Bullard was our keynote speaker at the Over the Line symposium last fall.

At Dalhousie, the social justice course overlaps with social planning on some aspects, and forges new ground in others. The course focuses on a particular issue each week:

  • Environmental justice
  • Sustainability
  • Ethnicity and immigration status
  • Gender
  • Community engagement
  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Urban redevelopment
  • Equity plans

I was fortunate enough to work on the Over the Line symposium last fall with Ingrid Waldron, which helped raise the profile of social justice in the region. Through this I was able to get in touch with a number of people who agreed to be guest speakers in my course this term. They have really brought the issues to life for our students.

Kelly Poirier, Amber Walker and Leticia Smillie gave students an overview of the Mobile Food Market for residents of underserved communities. The project touches on issues of land use, difficulties in attracting major grocery stores to low-income communities, and historic discrimination in some areas (e.g. North Preston, East Preston). Walker, a planner at Nova Scotia Health Authority, and Smillie, a planner at the Halifax Regional Municipality, described how the project is being evaluated so that it can be expanded beyond its six pilot locations.

Rebecca Moore, a land defender from the Mi’kmaq community (Pictou Landing First Nation), told stories from the front lines: protesting the proposed Alton Gas project and a drilling project in Quebec that threatens water quality. She explained the legal context through which Indigenous people can protest projects that threaten human and wildlife habitats and the treaty rights we share under the 1762 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. She also described the role of the Mi’kmaq Nation in the formation of the United States: the Treaty of Watertown established an alliance between the US and the Mi’kmaq and St. John’s Nations, and was the first treaty signed in the US after independence was declared in 1776.

Roberto Montiel, who works on a Local Immigration Partnership at Halifax Regional Municipality, discussed how Indigenous peoples tellt he story of Canada’s past while immigrants play a key role in its future. He discussed the pilot Dialogue project that HRM launched last year. As a partnership between the Mi’kmaq Nation, HRM, and immigrant service providers in the region, immigrants who have been in Canada for less than six months attend an event hosted by the Mi’kmaq community to learn about the history of Canada. Montiel described the common ground between the attendees as natural, as many immigrants had come from countries that had been colonized or communities that had been oppressed. The event had interpreters, in this case speaking Arabic and French, the most commonly spoken languages in the group. One of our students, whose family immigrated from Syria, volunteered to be an interpreter herself, as she is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. Montiel is hoping the project can expand beyond the pilot stage in the future, and in the meantime is busy building partnerships between HRM and immigrant service providers as part of the Welcoming Cities initiative of the federal government.

This 1991 short film will be shown along with a very optimistic 1961 film depicting the new social housing community of Mulgrave Park.

This week I discussed equity issues related to gender, from the Time’s Up movement and the “unfounded rate” in Canadian cities to David Schwimmer’s sexual assault PSAs (upon student request we watched one of them in class…they are cringe-worthy). I discussed a few ways planners might engage LGBTQ communities. We discussed the work of Women Transforming Cities and will be using their guide to community engagement in next week’s class. I will use other resources too: we’ll be watching National Film Board film Remember Africville and a CMHC film on the construction of Mulgrave Park (1961) in our class on urban redevelopment. The two films tell opposite sides of the urban regeneration story, which are still entrenched in modern urban redevelopment projects.

The class always includes a 30-minute written response to our guest lecture and a discussion of the readings. The Masters students lead a discussion and write a 5-page summary of the readings and seminar. Students’ written responses have really improved even a month into the course, with strong thesis statements, clear structures and argumentation. Initially they were worried about the practice of weekly writing, so I think this has really removed the fear and allowed them to be more reflective than usual. They’re able to write in a more personal, narrative way than they often do for class assignments. They are preparing to choose topics for their final papers, due at the end of the term.

It’s been a real pleasure teaching a course that adds so much value to a planners’ education. I intend to keep the course small (fewer than 35 students) to enable deep discussion and reflection, which tends to disappear in the larger classes. Hopefully there will be a good mix of students in the years to come as well, as it’s open to all Dalhousie students in third year or higher. The interaction of students in economics, management, and planning this year has really contributed to the discussions.

Figure 5 from The Opportunity Equation in the GTA (Update report). Notice how the middle class has switched places with the low- and very low-income group. Some of the other regions in the GTA show an even more extreme transition

I’m part of a research grant on neighbourhood changes in Canadian cities, the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, which examines the ways in which our cities are changing in areas such as affordable housing, income inequality, and poverty. Our Principal Investigator is Dr. David Hulchanski at the University of Toronto, and there are research teams in Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. As a member of the Halifax team, I presented our research on rooming houses in a previous post.

Last week Dr. Hulchanski’s team and United Way Toronto and York Region released a report, The Opportunity Equation in the Greater Toronto Area: An Update on Neighbourhood Income Inequality and Polarization. Their first report, The Opportunity Equation, proposed a relationship:

Effort + Opportunity = Success

The research found that over half of people living in the Toronto area felt that factors like race and gender were a barrier to success, and that the next generation would be worse off. The researchers believed that increasing income inequality was threatening the Opportunity Equation.

The update to this report, released on November 1, 2017, updates the analysis with data from the 2016 Census and also looks at the trends in Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver. The main findings were that income inequality continues to grow in all of these cities, and is geographically dispersed across the Toronto region. A majority of Toronto neighbourhoods are now either high- or low-income, with middle-income neighbourhoods disappearing. In 1970, almost two thirds (64%) of neighbourhoods were middle-income, though only 42% were in 2015. In contrast, low- and very low-income neighbourhoods together made up about one-fifth (21%) of the Toronto CMA’s neighbourhoods in 1980. By 2015, they made up 39% of all neighbourhoods. High- and very high-income neighbourhoods grew from 15 % to 19%. The highest increase in income inequality in the Toronto region were in the City of Toronto and the lowest in Durham Region.

Based on the findings from the first report, the authors called on all partners and sectors to address three issues: providing young people with opportunities, helping develop a more stable, secure labour market, and helping ensure that background and circumstances are not barriers to opportunity. The United Way launched an Anchor Agency investment strategy, ensuring people have a broad range of services available close to their homes, a Youth Success Strategy to connect youth with multiple barriers to meaningful career opportunities, and continues to build on its Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy to tackle the lack of economic opportunities in many areas across the city.

The update report builds on this message and encourage more partners across various sectors to address the challenges.