As mentioned, my name is Marie-José Corriveau. I represent the Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a group that was created 41 years ago. It is made up of 140 organizations from across Quebec that are concerned about poverty alleviation and housing rights. FRAPRU primarily calls on higher governments in order to advance the right to housing and access to social housing.
In terms of the government response to the pandemic, FRAPRU is grateful to the federal government for quickly setting up the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which has enabled households to meet their basic needs, such as food and housing. However, FRAPRU is disappointed, even shocked, by the disproportionate amount of money made available to the wealthiest versus to the poorest and most vulnerable households to get through the health crisis. In terms of housing, just like after the 2008 economic crisis, Canada decided to primarily help banks, insurance companies and property owners, leaving tenants to fend for themselves. We are coming out of these last few months with an increased sense of injustice.
Moreover, the CERB failed to prevent 3,000 Quebec households from having to resort to the Quebec program set up to help tenants unable to pay their rent after losing their jobs and suffering drastic cuts to their incomes. The next few months will be worrisome for many of them, as they will have to pay back loans without necessarily having found a job by that time.
However, one good thing about the pandemic is that it has reminded us of the close and incontrovertible connection between the right to housing and the right to health, and of the fact that housing is one of the main determinants of health. The lockdown measures imposed to minimize the risks of the spread of the coronavirus have not been experienced by everyone in the same way.
How can you be in lockdown when you just don't have housing? How can you stay locked down in a house that is too small, unhealthy or suffocating because of successive heat waves? How can you stay healthy when rent takes up an inordinate part of the family budget to the detriment of food, medication and other necessities, such as a mask or the Internet? How do you cope in times of lockdown when you depend on community resources for food, clothing and transportation on a daily basis, but those community resources have to cut back on their activities to comply with the rules of physical distancing?
For too many households, the pandemic is yet another crisis in a life fraught with peril. Already, as of the 2016 census, 1.7 million Canadian households were in core housing need—that is, living in housing that is substandard, too small or too expensive. The overwhelming majority of them are poor renters. In Quebec, the approximately 244,120 tenant households in core housing need had a median income of only $17,612 for all of 2015.
Since the last census, things have become worse. A housing shortage is spreading and taking root in Quebec's major cities, as in several other Canadian provinces. Here, the vacancy rate for rental housing is only 1.8%, and it is only 1.5% in the census metropolitan areas of Montreal and Gatineau. This represents half of the 3% threshold that is supposed to guarantee a balance between landlords and tenants. In Gatineau, the average market rent increased by 10% between 2018 and 2019, in a single year.
The impacts are devastating and will unfortunately last. Many tenants are under undue pressure to accept unjustified rent increases. On the ground, it has been observed that the rents charged for rental units this spring were well above the average current price. However, as the shortage seems to want to last, the concern is that this inflationary trend will continue. Among the hundreds of Quebec households who were unable to find new housing and who found themselves homeless last month, in July, many had been repossessed or “renovicted” because their landlords were trying to get rid of them, especially if they were long-term tenants and paying low rent.
Searching for housing in the midst of the pandemic is also problematic, if not impossible, for poor households that do not have access to the Internet because they do not have the equipment, because the system is too expensive or because the service is simply not available in their areas. Many, including families, racialized people and the poor, have also been discriminated against because of their condition, regardless of their credit or rent payment history, without any truly effective recourse to defend themselves. The shortage is literally pushing households to the brink of homelessness in the midst of a pandemic.
Finally, let's remember that, too often, to find new housing, the households thus displaced have had to leave their neighbourhood, their city, or even their region, thereby losing their family and community support network.
Under those circumstances, FRAPRU hoped that the federal government would not only quickly review the programs to help the poorly housed, but that it would also invest more in social housing as part of the national housing strategy. To date, it has done neither of those things.
Yet in 2017, when the national housing strategy was adopted, the government also identified households in core housing need. However, the resources announced to assist them came with serious gaps, making those measures ineffective. FRAPRU then identified and denounced those problems. If you wish, I can give you some examples.
Since the pandemic was declared, the unemployment rate has soared. Now, a second wave is looming, as well as a recession, or even an economic crisis. Governments are investing massively to support different parts of the economy. FRAPRU is asking them to relaunch a major social housing project and to adequately finance the refurbishment of all those units already built. So far, Ottawa's response has been extremely disappointing and detrimental to what is to come.
Beyond the health and economic crises, we believe that the government has a duty to protect the poorest and most poorly housed from the environmental crises that are now certain to follow. To do so, it must stop procrastinating and start investing again in social, non-profit and non-market housing. To fund the effort, the government has no shortage of resources. Here are a few examples. It can reduce its investments in fossil fuels. It can review its tax system, withdraw the tax benefits granted in recent decades to the wealthiest and restore a more progressive tax scale. It must also fight more seriously against tax evasion and tax avoidance. However, whatever avenues it chooses, it must better protect the most vulnerable, otherwise the political and economic damage will be disproportionate and the social fractures likely to be irreversible.
I hope I have stayed within the time limits.