Did you hear about the Tanudjaja trial? Of course, you didn’t. While the whole country is fixated on the national drama that is the Ghomeshi scandal, another more low-profile, far less sensational legal action was taking place involving an issue that affects millions of impoverished and working people all over Canada. Housing is an issue that should be at the heart of our national debate as a modern and supposedly compassionate country.
Ms. Jennifer Tanudjaja is a mother of two living in Toronto. She has been struggling to make ends meet, despite working multiple jobs, and has been unable to find adequate affordable housing for her family even though she has been waiting for over two years for something to become available in the social housing market. She joined three other appellants and a coalition of anti-poverty groups in their lawsuit against the governments of Ontario and Canada, to have their human right to affordable housing recognized by the courts.
The result was predictably sad. The court found that the case was misguided and basically rejected her appeal (even without hearing all of her arguments) on the grounds that it wasn’t a suitable legal matter to be resolved under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In legal parlance, her claim wasn’t “justiciable” (note to reader: I am currently writing my doctoral thesis on the subject of housing rights in Canada).
The issue of a lack of social housing in Canada has reached crisis levels, and it’s not just an urban problem. Across the country in big cities, small towns and especially remote aboriginal communities, the lack of subsidized, accessible, good housing is acute. Last week the Northern Ontario town of Attawapiskat was in the news again, this time over the Fed’s claim (Attawapiskat is a first nation community), based on their own auditing, that money that was transferred to the community for the purposes of funding their housing situation could not be accounted for. An accusation the local council strongly disputes.
This isn’t even a new problem. A few weeks ago Ed Broadbent, formerly the head of the NDP and now the head of his own eponymous progressive think tank, released an op-ed reminding people that in 1989, as an elected MP, he passed a motion unanimously (that’s right, the Conservative Mulroney government supported him) in the House of Commons that committed the government to ending child poverty in Canada by 2000. In 25 years we have made negligible progress in achieving this admirable goal. As “Honest Ed” reiterated, the solutions to this national scourge are clear. Among them, perhaps the most important and the most widely accepted is the need for much more low-income housing in Canada.
The facts on housing and homelessness in Canada speak to a growing and pervasive need. Even though the homelessness statistics aren’t necessarily conclusive, and tend to underestimate the actual figures (a problem in itself), we know that close to 250,000 will experience some form of homelessness every year in Canada. To say nothing of the millions whose lives are forever under the pressure of rising rents and a lack of income to pay for it. The Homeless Hub annual report tells us that 18% of Canadian homes have trouble covering their rent every month.
What is Ottawa doing to address the shortage of affordable housing and rental units? The answer is they are pouring the equivalent of a drop of water into the proverbial ocean. Ever since the 1980’s when the Mulroney government began its slow and steady withdrawal (accelerated under subsequent governments) from investing and regulating the housing sector, the feds now chip in roughly $119 million annually. But virtually none of this goes into the construction of affordable housing, which is left to the mostly non-profit organizations on the ground which depend on the generosity of municipal and provincial affordable housing policies (many provinces and municipalities have also withdrawn massively from the public and affordable housing system). Instead the money largely goes towards the maintenance of a meagre number of old social housing units that the federal government built decades ago.
What people don’t realize is that negligence on the part of our governments is also very costly to the taxpayer. We need to think more carefully about the costs in billions of dollars (according to some reports up to 7 billion dollars per year) that we pay for all the social, economic and material damage caused by homelessness. These are sometimes housing related (i.e. shelters, soup kitchens, etc.) but are also legal, incarceration, and healthcare issues. Research shows that people living on the street are also a major drag on the economy, in that they struggle to find or hold down jobs, owing to their difficult living circumstances.
So getting back to where we began, with the case of Ms. Tanudjaja, we see very plainly that she is not alone in these dire straits. Basically, we find ourselves with courts that have shut the door on claiming basic human rights like housing (or, as one justice on the Ontario Court of Appeals put it, left the door only “slightly ajar”). And, on the other hand, a state of shameful political intransigence at almost every level of government making it next to impossible for people like Ms. Tanudjaja to achieve economic and social justice. Arguably, this is more a political issue than a legal one, but when we see the total lack of support for affordable housing and progress towards solving it, especially by the federal government, we can’t blame desperate people for trying their luck in court, even when they know full well they’re looking at very long odds.
Other articles by David DesBaillets
Are Canadian unions divorcing the NDP?
Harper misses the point on calls for public inquiry into missing aboriginal women
Has the Harper government declared war on Canadian charities
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