09/25/2008

2008 OMSSA Social Housing and Homelessness Conference, Renaissance Toronto Airport Hotel, Toronto. September 25, 2008.
Peter Hume, AMO President and
Councillor, City of Ottawa
September 25, 8:30 a.m.
Renaissance Toronto Airport Hotel
801 Dixon Road, Toronto

2008 OMSSA Social Housing and Homelessness Conference

(Check Against Delivery)

Thank you for the introduction.

It is an honour to be here, not just as AMO’s new President, but also as a person who shares your concerns and your goals when it comes to housing and homelessness matters.  

I became President of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario one month ago in my hometown of Ottawa, and housing was one of the strongest themes in my acceptance speech to AMO’s annual conference.

The need for better approaches for housing will be a key initiative for AMO during my term and a defining issue for my Presidency. I couldn’t be happier about that.

I’m quite sure that some of you may wonder why AMO would care… or worse, you may worry that AMO would care.

In fact, I think you will find that we have very much in common – and it’s my hope that this morning, I will convince you that we can achieve more by working together than we ever could by working alone. In fact, I’m very pleased that we will have the opportunity to work closely together and in partnership on matters that affect our communities. 

It is hard not to be concerned about housing when you live in an urban community, like I do.  

I love Ottawa, but the winters are cold.  

And despite its size and status as a national capital, Ottawa is a town that cares, with an old fashioned sense of community.

We, in Ottawa, are working on a plan to end chronic homelessness. It hasn’t been easy, but by building a strong coalition – Ottawa is poised to make great gains.

Russell Mawby, Director of Housing in Ottawa, and my colleague fellow Councillor Peggy Feltmate, are part of the coalition, and working hard to bring about change.

Now I am very well aware that housing and homelessness is not just an urban problem for places like Ottawa, but a challenge confronted by communities of all shapes and sizes in every part of Ontario.

Socially, economically, and emotionally, homelessness and the struggles that accompany it hit us all hard.

Socially, you and I know that we can do more than we are doing now – and AMO is on record saying that the federal government can and should be doing far more in particular.  

I doubt there are any federal candidates in the room today. They are busy out there trying to inspire votes. AMO believes voters should be inspired by candidates that share our desire for a National housing strategy.

Canada is one of the only G8 nations without a substantive strategy on housing and homelessness.  In a nation as rich and prosperous as ours, that fact is shameful.

The economics are clear.  We know that it costs less to house people than it does to treat the complex symptoms of homelessness.

A year ago I had the opportunity to introduce Philip Mangano, Executive Director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, when he spoke to municipal delegates at the 2007 AMO Conference.

Mr. Mangano champions Housing-First principles that have yet to take root in our own federal government.  

I was so impressed by what he said that I, along with Russell Mawby - the City’s Director of Housing and my colleague, Councillor Peggy Feltmate, paid him a visit in Washington. We invited him to come back to Ottawa to meet with our City Council and staff.  On both occasions we were able to benefit from the considerable amount of time we spent with him.

We learned that Mr. Mangano’s basic strategy was to “move beyond funding to investing – beyond inputs, to outcomes -- and beyond managing the crisis to ending the disgrace”. It’s hard to argue against. And I have no interest in doing so… because I have too many local examples of my own.

Mangano spoke at the Congress Centre in Ottawa. No more than a block away, in Confederation Park, homeless people sleep, pants tucked into their socks, in the shadow of the Ch√Ęteau Laurier Hotel – which, incidentally, is also just a block away from Parliament Hill. 

So in the very block where Mangano spoke, the City of Ottawa is challenged by the need to give hope and opportunity to so many.  

We are challenged to pay the cost of fighting petty crime and drug use, the cost of increased policing and the cost of emergency healthcare. And at times the highest cost, the loss of life. 

It is not hard to see how investing in stable, adequate housing is less costly than failing to invest in housing. The economic argument alone is compelling enough.

We, at AMO, are encouraging the Province to develop a more complete and comprehensive approach to housing because we know how influential a role housing plays across a wide range of policy and program areas. 

For example, you know that it can cost up to $1,500 each time a homeless person visits the emergency room in a hospital. That same $1,500 could house them for a month in supportive housing, and keep them out of the most expensive part of the health care system. 

I know you know that there are about 125,000 Ontarians waiting for social housing.  

38% are families.  
24% are seniors.

More than 250,000 households in Ontario are paying more than 50% of their income on rent.  In the current economy, waiting lists have the potential to grow much higher. 

It is a national shame that our housing system is under such stress.  

The federal and provincial orders of government downloaded the cost of housing services onto a municipal tax base that can’t handle the burden.

Funding an income redistribution program like housing through property taxes is unsustainable and at odds with basic principles of good public policy and good fiscal policy.

Property tax revenue does not grow with inflation. Worse, in a poor economy, housing prices, and therefore municipal revenue, can drop at a time when demand for housing and social services spike.

Secondly, it is a regressive tax that hits hardest on the working poor, seniors and people with fixed incomes.

Is it any wonder that no other jurisdiction uses Ontario’s approach to funding housing?

Delivering social housing locally makes good sense, but funding it from the property tax base does not.

For municipalities, it has created a legacy of decaying municipal infrastructure, rising operating costs, diminishing housing supply, and impossibly long waiting lists.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, the wait for social housing in Peel Region is up to 21 years! In my opinion, the wait list of 2 to 3 years in some Ontario counties is also too long.

As you know, provincial investment in social housing is limited and federal investment is dwindling rapidly – although we now see a political promise that federal funding may be maintained after all.  In the meantime, municipal costs for housing are now well over $1 billion a year and growing fast. We all know what would happen if funding for the federal government’s own housing programs ends on March 31, 2009.  Whether or not that will happen is anybody’s guess. 

I’m sure some of you know all too well what it would mean.

If that day comes, Ontario’s municipalities will be shouldering almost the entire cost of social housing for the most vulnerable in our communities. And we lack the means to increase that funding in any meaningful way without significant property tax increases. Housing is a national problem that requires a national strategy. Engaging the federal government in a national housing strategy is a top priority for AMO. It’s a priority for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).  And it’s a priority for every provincial government in Canada.

Last month, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing asked delegates to help call for federal investment in housing. The next day I assured the same delegates, and the Minister, that AMO would stand with him. 

Municipalities have demonstrated they are able to deliver social housing under difficult circumstances, but they lack the financial resources to deal with increased social need, a declining housing stock, and economic fluctuations such as job losses and interest rate risks. 

Sustainable funding for social housing will not be possible without substantial additional investment from the federal government.

In order to fix this unsustainable funding arrangement, all orders of government must remember that they have a vested stake in housing. 

When more Ontarians are able to access stable employment, the provincial and federal governments will generate increased income through sales and income taxes. 

When Ontarian’s live healthier lives because of living in strong and equitable communities, the Province saves money in health care costs. 

When families have access to stable, affordable housing, education outcomes improve which in turn improves our labour market and research and development capacity. 

Show me a politician in Ontario that doesn’t put a priority on housing, and I will show you a politician that just doesn’t get it. It’s a simple matter of connecting the dots.

I’m pleased to say that AMO’s Board is made up of 43 municipal officials, from right across Ontario, who appreciate these connections.

And in that regard, they share a connection to more than 400 municipalities that make up the Association.  

The vast majority of Ontario municipalities belong to AMO, and collectively, our members govern and provide key services to about one in three Canadians.

They share a passionate desire to make their communities more livable, prosperous and strong.

We have strength in numbers. I’m telling you right now that we are prepared to lead on the Provincial and national fronts and we want you with us.

We have also developed a strong understanding of common ground.  AMO’s policy goals reflect views that are widely held within municipal circles and broadly supported by others.

There are those who believe we should push the envelope more when we ask for change, but experience has shown us that we accomplish our greatest successes by advocating for practical reforms. We advocate good public policy positions that are hard to argue against, and we back up that advocacy by charting reasonable paths to their implementation.

Let me give you an example. About two years ago, we rolled up our sleeves with the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators and began to prepare a number of policy papers that dealt with waste management, Ontario’s Blue Box Program and the need to hold manufacturers more accountable for costs related to the disposal of their products and packaging.

We did our homework and our policy paper was well received. Ontario legislation and public policy has been dramatically changed by it. The most public face of this change has been the introduction of a deposit return system for LCBO bottles.

Personally, I am committed to making as much significant progress on housing issues.

So, where do we start?

AMO released its ‘Principles and Strategic Considerations for Social Housing’ in 2007.

The paper lays out our cornerstones for sustainable social housing in Ontario. They include:
• Delivering services locally as opposed to provincially;
• Uploading the costs of housing to the Province; 
• A service delivery framework that promotes local flexibility and accountability;
• Multi-pronged, and integrated service delivery that is accountable, effective and efficient;
• The participation of all orders of government in a national housing program; and,
• Consultation and engagement with local governments in the system’s design.

More specifically, Ontario must continue to “get back into the housing business”.

With the Canada-Ontario Affordable Housing Program nearing its end in March 2009, it is time to renew the government commitment to a similar, but better initiative.

There is an urgent need to create new housing opportunities by:
• building new rental homes, 
• helping first time homebuyers, 
• rebuilding social housing communities, or by,
• providing rental assistance or housing benefit initiatives.

More funding, over longer periods of time, is critical for investment and planning purposes.

The Province could increase availability of affordable housing by embracing policy changes such as “inclusionary” planning… or by adopting a “housing first” policy for publicly owned lands, including school sites.  These changes would help ensure additional public resources are being directed toward housing needs. If we are truly serious in our commitment to address chronic homelessness, we need a commitment to housing supports.

Municipal delivery of provincially funded social housing is a principle that all three parties have supported. Getting there will take time.

In recent years we have seen progress -- such as the uploading of some provincial social service costs – and a joint provincial municipal fiscal and service delivery review that is working to map a path to more sustainable fiscal relationships.

In the meantime, we have to keep advocating the benefits of housing to the public, to the Province, and to the federal government in particular.

We know that no one is as well positioned as municipalities - as service managers - to deliver housing services and programs in our communities. We understand that to address local needs and circumstances, we need the flexibility and the tools to do so.

That is why AMO continues to work hard to bring the municipal knowhow to bear on social policy in Ontario. That is why we want to work closely with OMSSA and its members to make sure that we have policy in place to deliver the best outcomes - for our most vulnerable, for our communities, for Ontario.

It is my hope that AMO will continue to work closely with OMSSA President, Brenda Patterson, and your Executive Director, Kira Heineck.  

I know that my predecessor, Doug Reycraft, spoke highly of your Past President, Brian Hutchings, and I understand they forged a positive partnership. I intend to keep it strong and grow it.

Enjoy your last day of the conference and thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

Before I end, I hope to see you in London on October 28th for the joint OMSSA-AMO Forum on Poverty Reduction. We have worked together with OMSSA staff to put together a great program on a very important issue.