How can COVID-19 push governments to provide adequate housing?

Presented by the Housing Research Collaborative is our session “Can COVID-19 push governments to provide adequate housing?” with Carolyn Whitzman, Adjunct Professor at the University of Ottawa and Housing Policy Consultant; Penny Gurstein, Professor and Director of the Housing Research Collaborative, University of British Columbia; Andrés Peñaloza, Research Assistant at the Housing Research Collaborative; and Julie Lawson, Honorary Associate Professor at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated the global housing emergency

About 1.6 billion people, a third of the urban population, are experiencing insecure tenure, overcrowding, and/or lack of access to water and sanitation. As Carolyn Whitzman points out, with widespread economic shut downs, about half of Canadian renters now have less than a month’s worth of savings. This has led to evictions and foreclosures in Canada—and indeed in many places around the world. Some have been more impacted than others: those in service and tourism related industries, racialized and low-income people, as well as women, with the rise in gender-based violence during the pandemic.

2. Housing is a human right

Rather than understanding housing as a means of accumulating wealth, we must start looking at housing as a human right. Julie Lawson explains that when we look at property ownership as a means to accumulate wealth, we ignore the social and environmental dimensions of housing. This is more important now than ever. As wage growth has been well surpassed by housing costs in many places, the increased reliance on the private rental sector offers varying protections for people.

3. Learn from what (didn’t) work during the 2008 financial crisis.

Lawson argues, the last financial crisis placed an emphasis on bailing out the banks and increasing liquidity. This time around, we should focus on purposeful investment. If social inclusion is prioritized, that could drive more sustainable housing system reforms. Housing needs to be tackled as a global solution, not a local problem.

4. Look to Finland for a successful social housing system

Lawson’s global research points to Finland as ‘best in class’ for health and housing. With automatic stabilizers, unemployment benefits, housing assistance, other forms of social security, postponed evictions, and a very strong social housing system, Finland’s social support systems provides some valuable lessons for the rest of the world.

5. Needs across the housing spectrum are changing

According to Penny Gurstein, since the 1990s, governments have tended to build social housing for people at the most disadvantaged end of the spectrum and who were considered the most needy: seniors, low income single parents, and people with multiple barriers. Now, needs across the spectrum have changed. She argues that there “needs to be a rethinking of what is possible in government supported housing”—and redefining social housing, and community housing, and who they are meant to serve.