That, in the opinion of this House, the government should develop a precise and workable definition of the terms “affordable housing”, “poverty' and “homeless” to guide government policy and to establish legislative parameters for related government spending.
Madam Speaker, I wish to thank my colleague from Prince George—Peace River for seconding the motion. I am pleased to rise today to speak on my motion, Motion No. 245, and I would like to repeat it for the record:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should develop a precise and workable definition of the terms “affordable housing”, “poverty”, and “homeless” to guide government policy and to establish legislative parameters for related government spending.
The reason for this is very simple, that is, the most basic of terms, these three, affordable housing, poverty and homeless, have so many different meanings across the country that it makes it rather impossible to legislate for the needs of the citizens of Canada with so much variety in interpretation.
The term homeless, for example, has so many different definitions that it has the number of homeless people in Canada varying from some three million people at the high end to a low end of some three thousand if we are talking about people who simply do not have shelter or a home.
With this in mind, I will first refer to the dictionary definition of homeless. Three dictionaries, American Heritage , Canadian Oxford and Webster's , simply say it means having no home or lacking a home. That is very simple.
One would think it would be very simple for various organizations across Canada to be able to use those simple terms, but what appears simple is not necessarily so. Out of 10 homeless reports I reviewed from across Canada there were 38 different definitions of homeless.
With that in mind, and because it is important, I will read into the record the different definitions so that we can examine the problem to see if we cannot come up with a solution, something simple and basic that we are able to legislate and follow.
I will start with the different definitions of homeless and homelessness. The definitions describe homeless people as: having no housing alternatives; being absolutely homeless; being sheltered homeless; living in emergency accommodations; living in condemned housing; living in transitional accommodation and ready to be discharged but having no permanent residence to go to.
The definitions continue, describing homeless people as those who: are expected to be on the street at the end of a stay; are expected to be on the street in the immediate future; have an extremely low income; have no fixed address; have no permanent place to reside; have no housing at all or are staying in a temporary form of a situation. They also include people who: sleep on the street; sleep in a stairwell; end up staying with friends; live in housing that is extremely expensive; live in overcrowded or inadequate housing; live in places not meant for human habitation; live in parks and on beaches; live in vehicles; squat in vacant buildings; live in hostels; and live in substandard hotels and rooming houses.
More definitions include: being absolutely, periodically or temporarily without shelter; living in housing not within easy reach of employment and costing more than 50% of income; lacking privacy, security and tenant document rights; having mental health or social disorganization; not being a member of a stable group; being in extreme cases of failure to provide the conditions needed to ensure quality of life; paying more than 30% of income for rent; having no home or haven; lacking a home; having no home or permanent place of residence; having the quality or state of being homeless; being chronically homeless; being cyclically homeless; being temporarily homeless; and suffering from the homeless disease.
It rather defies belief that in 10 reports we can have 38 different definitions. How on earth can we develop policy when we have such misunderstandings and misinterpretations across the country in 10 simple reports, let alone practically every city having its own individual reports?
If that is not enough of a problem in regard to the definition of the term homeless, we follow through with the problem of defining poverty. The problem with poverty, and why it impacts and varies so much, is that the largest single group in the homeless category across the country is single people.
If we try to understand what the poverty level is for a single person, we will see that it varies from the $450 a month in Edmonton, which is provided by social services for a single person to live on, to the low income cutoff of $1,757. It varies from social assistance of $450 to $1,750. Once again, how do we rationalize it? Those numbers are for one city, the city of Edmonton. Let us look at Alberta assisted living wages in Edmonton. That is $855 a month. Minimum wages are $5.90 an hour, which means that full time employment of 170 hours is worth $1,000 a month.
Surely we have to come up with some opinion of what we consider to be a rational level for a single person who is living in poverty. In other words, what is the poverty level for a single person? Certainly I do not believe that it should be $1,700 a month, which is approximately 80% more than a person living on minimum wage. On the low end, $450 a month does not provide sustenance of life either. Therefore we have a problem defining poverty.
The third area we have a problem with is affordable housing. What is affordable? How do we characterize and provide for affordable housing across this country when there are such wide discrepancies in our understanding of what is affordable? For example, a brand new six-plex row housing unit was built in Edmonton at $117,000 per unit. In the city of Edmonton that is simply not affordable. That is high end housing. A builder can build the same housing for $55 a square foot in Edmonton, for a cost of approximately $60,000 to $70,000 a unit. If the builder can build units to code, to regulations, to all standards including health standards, and build these units for $55 a square foot, why are we considering affordable housing in the range of $100 to $110 a square foot?
How can that be provided on a national basis if we are looking at providing assistance with funding for 1.7 million households across the country? The difference between those two I mentioned is a factor of 2 to 1. Surely we have to come up with some legislation and terminology so that we can examine what we mean by affordable and what is proper for us to provide. We need to have that before we look at funding.
In this case, we simply could not afford to provide a six unit row house complex at a cost of $117,000 per unit to all those across the country who do need it.
The other issue with affordable housing is how we make it affordable. There are great concerns with that as well, because 100% of the funding for this same six unit affordable housing project in Edmonton came from Alberta lottery funds or from taxpayers. By the same token, now that the complex has been opened taxpayers are paying subsidized rents up to market value. We have to address not only the problem of affordability but the problem of how we appropriate grants and loans for new construction. In this case the taxpayers paid to build the building and are also paying to subsidize the rents. That obviously cannot be done across the country.
There are various issues that must be addressed and considered. We absolutely must have working definitions for the terms affordable housing, poverty and homeless in order to be able to go on to the other issues, which would be to develop regional housing shelter ladders and affordable housing standards and to address deinstitutionalization concerns and charter of rights and freedoms concerns. All of these will have to be addressed before we can start to look at properly addressing the concerns of the homeless and of those across the country who need affordable housing.
I ask all members to agree that the first step in providing affordable housing and addressing shelter needs and concerns is to understand the terminology so that we can define it in terms of where our needs are before we proceed to other areas.
As I indicated, one of the largest concerns in the country, one of the largest needs, is that of providing housing for singles. Whether we are talking about Toronto or Edmonton, our shelters across the country are filled with single people, a large number who have the means to pay at least some rent. Whether it is in Toronto or Edmonton, one-third of the people in the emergency shelters need clean affordable rooming house rooms. For example, in Edmonton that would be a rooming house room that would rent for $250 a month and in Toronto it would probably be $300 to $350 a month.
The problem is that we have not built any new rooming house rooms in Canada in 20 years. More than that, we have closed two-thirds of the rooming house rooms. Affordable housing is one of the most critical areas that must be defined and defined soon.
Ninety per cent of funding that has been going into RRAP repair programs has been going into upscale apartment projects, not into the most needed area, rooming house rooms. Part of the reason for that is the explanation and definition of what a rooming house room is and what an apartment is. That underlines the concerns and the need to develop national understandings and definitions for the terminology that we are using.
With the affordable housing definitions and terminology it is very important to define whether it is a rooming house room for singles or whether it is the shelters themselves, so that we know what we will provide for basic shelter and for affordable housing units.
It is estimated that some 7,000 rooming house rooms in the Toronto area have been closed down. When I visit the shelters in Toronto and Edmonton I am told time and again that the men and women staying in those shelters want rooming house rooms. They could afford to move into something but they just do not have enough money to move into upscale apartments.
Due to the importance of my motion and the need for affordable housing on a national basis, I ask for unanimous consent to make it votable.