A new $1.8-million grant from the federal government will support a cross-Canada research team in creating easy-to-use, standardized and equity-focused tools for diagnosing Canada’s core housing needs over the next decade, and identifying the best land for social and affordable housing.
Led by Allard Law professor Dr. Alexandra Flynn and School of Community and Regional Planning professor Dr. Penelope Gurstein, the Housing Assessment Resource Tools (HART) project will provide policymakers with a common data set and training to enable municipal, provincial and federal governments to work together more effectively to create affordable housing.
The project is funded through the latest round of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Housing Supply Challenge, which asked researchers to create data-based solutions to improve decision-making for housing supply across Canada. The challenge was designed to support the federal government’s commitment to end chronic homelessness by 2030, and reduce the number of Canadian households in inadequate homes by 530,000. In the project’s first phase, HART worked with the City of Kelowna to prototype housing need and land assessment tools.
We spoke with Dr. Alexandra Flynn about the project’s second phase, which will roll out the prototype tools across Canada.
What are some of the challenges with Canada’s current approach to land assessments and housing need assessments?
In 2018, almost 1.7 million households, more than one in ten, were in housing need—meaning in unaffordable, overcrowded and/or uninhabitable homes, or without a permanent home. Right now, there are no standardized, replicable or equity-based tools to measure housing need across the country. This makes it very difficult for governments, including municipalities, to determine what housing is needed and for whom. Or for governments to know where they should place new housing. Our tool seeks to change that.
Our housing need assessment tool measures housing need by income group, in order to generate maximum housing costs—or the maximum rents—that meet affordable housing needs. We measure sizes of households and the proportion of equity-seeking groups in inadequate housing. We also include the loss of affordable housing and population projections to provide robust, equity-focused, and comparable data across Canada.
Our land assessment tool helps governments identify well-located land and buildings that can be used to meet housing need.
What do you hope to accomplish in stage two of this project?
Between now and March 2023, we will work with 15 governments across the country to prototype HART. These 15 governments include small and large municipalities, a territory, a regional government and First Nations, totalling more than one third of Canada’s population.
Our needs assessment includes income categories, so governments know the kinds of maximum rents that can be afforded by low-income households. We also include household size—to avoid overcrowding—and specific priority populations, like Indigenous and women-led households.
We’ll be working with Statistics Canada to generate standardized and replicable data. Working with partners such as Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation—Canada’s national housing agency— we’re developing ways to calculate the loss of affordable housing and make population projections. We’ll also be working with the Canadian Housing Survey to see if housing need can be calculated more frequently than in the census. The land assessment tools require land ownership data, which is often privatized, and we will problem-solve this with governments.
What feedback have you received about the project so far?
In Phase 1, we worked with the City of Kelowna, a mid-sized BC city of 140,000 residents. We were able to provide Kelowna with housing need numbers across all income categories for the period 2016-26, including the need for 2+ bedroom apartments at $375, $750 and $1,375 per month. The problem in Kelowna seems to be “right supply” rather than overall supply. The HART findings will be able to inform targets in their Official Community Plan.
Our advisory group—which includes the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Urban Institute, and the Community Housing Transformation Centre—agrees that these tools are critical. And our $1.8M funding package from the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation signals how important this work is.
Your team’s latest report notes that it could be possible for Canada to achieve functional zero homelessness within the next 10 years. How can HART help achieve that goal? And what else would need to happen?
To address homelessness, people need homes to live in, but municipalities need to build the right kinds of home—size, location, amenities—for those who need them. There is a disproportionate emphasis on studio and one-bedroom apartments for very low-income households. This means vulnerable people, including single mothers, may be excluded from smaller social homes because of having children. They may then risk losing custody of their children due to inadequate housing conditions.
It is vital that housing need assessment includes the size as well as the income of households in need. This is where HART comes in. We give governments more specific information about what kind of housing is needed and for whom, including an analysis of equity-seeking groups. This information is critical for governments as they build housing for those in acute housing need, including those who are experiencing homelessness.
How could HART make a difference in a city like Vancouver, which was recently ranked the least affordable city in North America?
Cities like Vancouver know that housing is unaffordable. They are pursuing new strategies like increasing housing supply, changing zoning bylaws, and experimenting with new housing forms. HART supports the work of cities like Vancouver by first identifying housing need and land availability. Land assessments can also serve as the basis for real-time decision-making in an ever-shifting housing landscape. As one government decision-maker told us, being able to prioritize land so they can be ready to jump on funding opportunities to build affordable housing will be crucial for addressing the housing crisis.
Interview languages: English and French.
HART is a collaboration between UBC researchers Dr. Alexandra Flynn (Allard Law), Dr. Penelope Gurstein (SCARP), James Connolly (SCARP), Dr. Julia Harten (SCARP), and Dr. Raymond Ng (Computer Science); Dr. Martine August (School of Planning, University of Waterloo); Dr. Carolyn Whitzman (Adjunct Faculty, UOttawa); and Craig Jones, Project Coordinator.
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