In September 2016, the Canadian Federal government unveiled its National Housing Strategy (NHS) via a policy paper: Canada’s National Housing Strategy: A Place to Call Home. Footnote 1 The NHS promised to be an ambitious intervention in Canadian housing policy; it emphasized “safe, affordable housing”Footnote 2 and spoke of the “right to housing.”Footnote 3 Perhaps its most ambitious goal relates to homelessness: the NHS promises to eliminate chronic homelessness.Footnote 4 However, it was only in 2019 that the federal government passed the National Housing Strategy Act, which commits the government to “further[ing] the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as recognized in the International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights” (ICESCR)Footnote 5 and creates several advisory bodies around the realization of the NHS.Footnote 6
As cheering as it is for there to be an explicit, statutory commitment to realizing the right to housing, Canada has arguably been committed to realizing the right to housing since it signed the ICESCR in 1976. So, too, has Canada’s federal anti-homelessness policy adopted an approach, known as Housing First (HF), which is generally thought to respect the right to housing and to be a human-rights-based approach to reducing homelessness.Footnote 7 Housing First seeks to provide “stable housing as a priority for those experiencing…homelessness.”Footnote 8 Housing First differs from “traditional” approaches to homelessness by housing people first and then offering the necessary supports to address issues such as addiction and mental health.Footnote 9 Given that the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy has been following HF since 2014,Footnote 10 it is questionable whether the NHS represents a new approach to reducing homelessness or just a new target for reducing long-term homelessness.
However, while it is clear that homelessness is a “prima facie violation of the right to housing,”Footnote 11 simply housing the homeless is not necessarily respect for the right to housing, nor a human-rights-based approach to reducing homelessness.Footnote 12 Our goal in this article is to explore what an effective and human-rights-based approach to realizing the right to housing for homeless Canadians should look like. To do this, we set out the existing state of the right to housing in Canada, and we draw lessons from two jurisdictions—Finland and Scotland—which have reduced homelessness substantially.
Throughout the article, we argue that a full realization of the right to housing must consider the seven essential features of the right as set out by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment No. 4: “legal security of tenure; (ii) availability of services and materials; (iii) affordability; (iv) habitability; (v) accessibility; (vi) location; and (vii) cultural adequacy”Footnote 13—and that any realization of the right to housing should rely on an approach which recognizes the importance of community participation, state accountability, and homeless people’s dignity and autonomy.Footnote 14 Consequently, we also raise questions about whether HF does or could fully realize the right to housing, and whether, reductions in homelessness notwithstanding, Finland’s and Scotland’s approaches fully realized the right to housing.
Our reason for choosing these two jurisdictions is that they offer two different approaches to realizing the right to housing for homeless people, and, we argue, a blend of their approaches would likely have success in Canada should they be followed by state actors under the NHS. Finland has a constitutionally enshrined right to housing,Footnote 15 but it was not until it adopted a nationwide policy, known as Paavo I and II, modelled on an HF approach, that it saw a reduction in levels of long-term homelessness. Thus, Finland offers an example of the progressive realization of the right to housing: Finns cannot enforce their right to housing through the courts. In contrast, the right to housing is ultimately enforceable through the courts in Scotland; that is, Scotland has a legal right to housing, rather than Finland’s programmatic right.Footnote 16 In fact, the United Kingdom as a whole has long recognized a legal duty on the part of local authorities to house certain classes of the unintentionally homeless.Footnote 17 British scholars have noted the overlap between HF approaches and this statutory duty, and have hypothesized that such similarities can explain the relatively small inroads HF has made in the United Kingdom.Footnote 18 What Scotland now does differently is that, from 2012, it abolished the “priority classes” among the unintentionally homeless.Footnote 19 There are particular advantages to the legal right to housing as it exists in Scotland, and, given previous experiences with the right to housing in Canada, we argue that a mix of HF and a legally enforceable right to housing is needed under the NHS. Accordingly, we contend that the right to housing in Canada should be thought of as something to be progressively realized, as required by statute and international law and, in certain contexts, should be seen as an individual, legal right, enforceable through the courts. As such, we suggest that the federal government’s decision to make the right to housing non-justiciable is short-sighted and will fall short of achieving its ambitious goal of eliminating chronic homelessness under the NHS. In addition, both Finland and Scotland also illustrate the necessity of social housing and other forms of welfare to reducing homelessness and so point towards the sort of infrastructure and legal framework that Canada should develop.
We begin by setting out the ongoing debate over the right to housing, notably the question over whether it is a legal or programmatic right. The second and third parts examine the current state of the right to housing in Canada. In part II, the focus is on attempts to win judicial recognition of the right, while in part III, the focus is on HF in Canada and whether it realizes the right to housing, and whether it is, in its current form, a human-rights-based approach, as it purports to be. Taken together, these parts illustrate shortcomings with both the legal and progressive realization of the right to housing in Canada. In parts IV and V, we set out Finland’s and Scotland’s experiences. Where relevant, we refer to the broader constitutional context and the housing situation in each jurisdiction. As will be seen, there are surprising similarities between the Canadian housing sector and the Finnish approach, and divergences between the Canadian and the Scottish experience. In part VI, we conclude by setting out the lessons Canada could learn from the Finnish and Scottish experiences and how they might be adapted for the Canadian context, but we also note the barriers to Canada successfully reducing homelessness. In particular we note the challenges posed by Canadian federalism and the need to ensure that all levels of government are involved in and committed to reducing homelessness.
I. Understanding the right to housing
In 2013, Hohmann noted that the right to housing’s status as a human right “is often greeted with scepticism.”Footnote 20 In part this is because, like many of the economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCRs), the right to housing is often classed as a programmatic rather than a legal right.Footnote 21 Programmatic rights, rather than being protected via the courts, are to be progressively realized, typically through the formulation of public policy frameworks.Footnote 22As Porter notes, progressive realization obliges governments
to facilitate the design of strategies and programs to realize rights with identified timeframes and with measurable goals and targets to recognize the central role that must be played by rights claimants and to strengthen government accountability through compliance procedures, monitoring and evaluation.Footnote 23
Accordingly, ESCRs run into the positivist claim that there is no right without a remedy,Footnote 24 and so ESCRs do not seem to be “rights” in a concrete legal sense.Footnote 25 That has not prevented litigants from attempting to rely on the right to housing in court but, as the next section sets out, litigation has not done much to realize the right to housing in Canada. In this section we offer a brief overview of how the right to housing is understood.
Whether or not the right to housing is properly classed as a programmatic right is open to question. Hohmann seems critical of understanding the right to housing as a programmatic right, noting that the end result has been an interpretation which is “unduly procedural”Footnote 26 and does little to help those most in need.Footnote 27 Here, Hohmann is criticizing the case law arising in those jurisdictions with a constitutional right to housing. Yet, given the “broad and abstract” nature of the right to housing and other ESCRs, judicial enforcement would be “a major transfer of policy-making power from the political to the legal sphere,”Footnote 28 sometimes known pejoratively as “legislating from the bench.” Hence ESCRs are seen as guidelines for governments for what they ought to do rather than an enforceable standard.Footnote 29 The cultural shift that progressive realization requires, particularly for common-law jurisdictions like Canada, is significant. That does not mean programmatic rights never find legal expression—section 19 of Finland’s constitution, with its reference to realizing the right to housing, illustrates how programmatic rights can be legally expressed—though merely giving programmatic rights legal expression does not guarantee their realization.
In addition to concerns around judicial interference in policy decisions, the choice between legal and programmatic rights matters from the perspective of rights-holders. Granting a homeless person a legally enforceable right to accommodation can be empowering because it removes the discretion that “those who administer welfare goods or services” have.Footnote 30 As such, homeless people go from clients to citizens.Footnote 31 The risk, however, is that such legal rights might “foster an adversarial rather than problem-solving atmosphere in public services,”Footnote 32 to say nothing of how those who are homeless may not be best placed to enforce their rights through the courts, given the time and expense of so doing.
In sum, the right to housing promises much but seems to deliver little. In particular, it seems to deliver little practical benefit to those most in need. Where it is recognized as a programmatic right, there is little scope to realize the right to housing absent political will and significant resources. Yet, if and when it is litigated, it has the potential to become “unduly procedural” and to foster an adversarial approach to housing, neither of which do much to realize the right.
II. The Canadian Experience with Litigating the Right to Housing
Since Canada signed the ICESCR in 1976, it has faced criticisms that it has been neglecting its socioeconomic duties under international law. As recently as 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Housing, Leilani Farha, reiterated Canada’s failings in her report to the United Nations General Assembly.Footnote 33 Absent the political will to undertake measures to realize the right to housing, Canadians were and are left without recourse for violations of this right. Not surprisingly, homeless Canadians and their allies have turned to the courts in an attempt to secure the right to housing.
While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees a number of rights, the right to housing is not among them. Consequently, those who have attempted to argue for a right to housing have tried to link it to existing Charter rights. Housing rights activists have turned to rights such as the right to life, protected under section 7 of the Charter, and the right to equality, protected under section 15 of the Charter,Footnote 34 in their attempts to win judicial recognition of the right to housing. The end result has been recognition of a right to shelter—albeit in limited circumstances—which falls far short of the right to housing. In terms of case law, there are three major cases that deal with the issue of homelessness and access to shelter and/or housing as a Charter right: Victoria (City) v Adams [Adams],Footnote 35 Abbotsford (City) v Shantz [Shantz],Footnote 36 and Tanudjaja v Canada (AG) [Tanudjaja].Footnote 37 As all of these examples have received substantial academic attention.Footnote 38 Our focus is on the arguments around the right to housing or shelter in these cases.
Adams emerged out of an attempt by Victoria to get an injunction against a tent city in a local park. The defendants sought to rely on the Charter as a defence and subsequently filed a counterclaim arguing that a city bylaw prohibiting temporary shelters in public parks was unconstitutional.Footnote 39 The defendants argued that the bylaw violated their s. 7 rights and submitted that “the Charter must be interpreted and applied in a manner consistent with Canada’s international obligations, which include those obligations that recognize adequate housing or shelter as a fundamental human right.”Footnote 40 At trial, Ross J found that “international instruments…should inform the interpretation of the Charter,”Footnote 41 but she did not explicitly refer to them in her analysis of the issues in Adams. While Ross J agreed that the bylaw violated s. 7 and the Court of Appeal upheld this decision, the violation was narrow. This limitation is illustrated by the Court of Appeal rendering the bylaw inoperative “insofar and only insofar as…[it] prevent[s] homeless people from erecting temporary overnight shelter in parks when the number of homeless people exceeds the number of available shelter beds.”Footnote 42
As for the argument around a right to shelter, this left the defendants open to the charge that they were seeking a positive benefit. Such positive benefits would run counter to Gosselin v Quebec (AG), where a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada refused to find that s. 7 created positive rights.Footnote 43 Gosselin did not preclude the potential for s. 7 to create positive benefits,Footnote 44 but to date no case has interpreted s. 7 as so doing. In Adams, Ross J found that the defendants were not seeking positive benefits,Footnote 45 and the Court of Appeal agreed.Footnote 46 As such the right to shelter in Adams was conceived of as a right imposing negative obligations on the City.Footnote 47
Shantz had a similar fact pattern to Adams as it challenged city bylaws requiring permits to camp on city grounds overnight. The homeless litigants in Shantz advanced a number of Charter arguments, including s. 7 and s. 15 claims, as well as claims based on violations of ss. 2(c) and 2(d), freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, respectively.Footnote 48 The homeless litigants also argued that “international instruments…were relevant to the s. 7 analysis,” but the judge found them of no assistance and the decision in Shantz did not rely on them.Footnote 49
Not surprisingly given the precedents of Adams and Gosselin, the homeless litigants noted that there was “no obligation to provide housing or services to the City’s homeless.”Footnote 50 However, like Adams, Shantz held that municipal bylaws that sought to limit or prevent overnight “camping” in urban parks without permits were unconstitutional because they violated s. 7 of the Charter. Footnote 51 The end result of both Adams and Shantz is that a homeless person has the right, where there are insufficient shelter spaces or other alternatives, to build their own temporary shelter. In short, a narrow, individual right which imposes a negative obligation on governments and one which falls far short of the right to housing.
Tanudjaja was perhaps the most ambitious attempt to recognize the rights of homeless and precariously housed Canadians to date. However, it never advanced to a full hearing and the reported decisions centre on the ultimately successful motion to dismiss the application on the basis there was “no reasonable cause of action.”Footnote 52 The application at issue in Tanudjaja, was a complex Charter challenge brought against the governments of Canada and Ontario on the grounds that changes to the funding of social housing and social assistance programs in Ontario were indirectly contributing to the infringement of the applicants’ section 7 and section 15 Charter rights.Footnote 53 As Ms. Tanudjaja’s lawyers put it: “in taking the active decisions to implement these laws and policies that produce and perpetuate homelessness and inadequate housing, the federal and provincial governments have violated the constitutional rights of the most marginalized members of our communities.”Footnote 54 In contrast, the governmental respondents in Tanudjaja alleged that the applicants sought “a positive obligation to provide for affordable, adequate and accessible housing.”Footnote 55
Tanudjaja was novel in several ways, but that did not mean it deserved to be dismissed at so early a stage.Footnote 56 Indeed, while a majority of the Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal, Feldman JA issued a strong dissent.Footnote 57 Feldman JA noted that the motion judge “erred by concluding it is settled law that the government can have no positive obligation under s. 7 to address homelessness.”Footnote 58 However, the majority on appeal held that the dismissal was correct because Tanudjaja “did not raise justiciable issues” and, further, there was no need to examine whether positive obligations could be imposed under s. 7.Footnote 59
Tanudjaja illustrates the difficulty of litigating a programmatic approach to the right to housing. Tanudjaja also shows how federalism matters for housing rights, as the case involved the provincial government and the federal government, which have overlapping policies with respect to housing and welfare.Footnote 60 Although Tanudjaja did not succeed, or even proceed to a full hearing, its requested remedies are echoed by the NHS and the NHS Act. Tanudjaja requested “an order that Canada and Ontario must implement effective national and provincial strategies to reduce and eliminate homelessness,” which should be subject to a “supervisory jurisdiction” of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice.Footnote 61 The NHS Act, in creating a National Housing Council with a quasi-judicial power to review housing rights violations referred to it by the Federal Housing Advocate, commits these new bodies to oversee the implementation of the NHS.Footnote 62 Such oversight reflects the request in Tanudjaja, but neither the Council nor the Advocate have much power in and of themselves to realize the right to housing. To some extent, both echo the supervisory bodies and rapporteurs at an international level. What matters more is how the Council’s and the Advocate’s recommendations and reports will be implemented; indeed, the second aspect of the order sought in Tanudjaja was that any strategies for reducing homelessness should be effective. With that desire for a response which actually reduces homelessness in mind, we turn to how HF has worked in Canada, as this policy is often praised for its effectiveness, though questions remain about whether it does realize the right to housing.
III. The Canadian Experience with Progressive Realization: Housing First and the Right to Housing
Housing First is typically traced to the Pathways to Housing program which emerged in New York in the early 1990s, but Suttor argues that a Canadian model of HF first emerged in 1980s Toronto.Footnote 63 The Canadian model was developed as a response to growing homelessness and lack of rental stock in Toronto. Although the model resulted from collaboration between municipal, provincial, and federal actors responsible for housing policy, its origins were largely driven by grassroots organizing by social housing activists and “community agencies.”Footnote 64 Suttor notes that the language of housing as a human right was commonplace among these civil society groups.Footnote 65 Indeed, the narrative that HF respects the right to housing is often accepted at face value rather than critically examined.Footnote 66 Regardless of origins, our interest in this section is in whether current HF models are a human-rights-based approach to realizing the right to housing and whether HF is effective in Canada.
The name “Housing First” captures the spirit of its response to homelessness. Instead of housing coming last after a person advances through various treatments, under HF, housing comes first, with treatments following if and how the person chooses.Footnote 67 Using the Pathways program as an example, the HF approach seems successful. Over a five-year period, Pathways saw 88% of its tenants remain housed compared with 47% of tenants housed under New York City’s prevention program.Footnote 68 Following this success, HF has been adopted across the world with similarly positive results.Footnote 69
There is, however, one caveat to HF’s success in reducing homelessness. O’Donnell’s recent study based on long-term survey data from Australia indicated that social housing has an important role to play in reducing and preventing homelessness.Footnote 70 Housing First, by its nature, relies on the private rented sector (PRS). The rationale for this is often “that the ‘community norms and social pressures’ found within mixed neighbourhoods help to sustain normative behaviours, promote recovery, and encourage social and economic inclusion.”Footnote 71 The reliance on the PRS also fits with HF’s emphasis on “consumer preference.”Footnote 72 Clients choose their own apartment, whether to have roommates, and whether or not to engage with additional services.Footnote 73 Yet choice alone is not sufficient to respect the right to housing nor to make HF a human-rights-based approach. Affordability, security of tenure, and location are key features of the right to housing and these can be lacking in HF programs given their reliance on the PRS. Furthermore, HF’s ambivalence towards social housing continues to stigmatize social housingFootnote 74 instead of normalizing it. In effect, some aspects of HF replicate rather than challenge dominant assumptions about desirable housing.
Replicating HF has not always been straightforward. Pathways has since provided a “fidelity checklist” but Pleace and Bretherton doubt the checklist’s efficacy for a program that is now used internationally.Footnote 75 Instead, Pleace and Bretherton offer a list of core features which are central to an HF approach. These features include a separation of housing and services—so that housing is a right which is not conditional on completing treatment of any kind. Flowing from the non-mandatory nature of services offered, the HF approach supports choice and involves users in their own support. Where support is accepted, it will be intensive, open-ended, and focused on harm reduction.Footnote 76 The housing provided can be either “scattered-site” where individuals are placed “in ordinary housing in ordinary neighbourhoods” or it can be “single-site” in “apartment blocks” and so on.Footnote 77 Pleace and Bretherton are clear that those services which offer low-intensity support are not HF.Footnote 78 These core principles echo the six core principles identified by Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy in its 2018 report.Footnote 79 Strikingly, this report also noted that many HF programs were not fully following these principles.Footnote 80
In sum, HF adopts and inverts the individualistic approach to homelessness. We say adopts because HF emphasizes respecting both an individual’s free choice and their perspective on which services they need; and we say inverts because HF does not see homelessness as an individual problem. In our view, HF recognizes that the causes of homelessness are systemic rather than individual but seeks to respect homeless people as individuals who are capable of making choices for themselves.Footnote 81 As such HF can be said to respect the inherent dignity and autonomy of each person.
Here is not the place to offer a full overview of every HF program in Canada. Instead, we seek to draw on two examples which illustrate both the potential for HF’s success and its shortcomings in Canada. These two examples are Toronto’s “Streets to Homes” (S2H) and Lethbridge’s “Bringing Lethbridge Home” (BLH). Both pre-date the Homelessness Partnering Strategy’s nationwide adoption of HF in 2014, but given that one is located in Canada’s most populous city while the other is in a smaller, more homogeneous city, they illustrate HF’s ability to work in a range of circumstances.
Streets to Homes began in 2005 in response to increasing homelessness in Toronto.Footnote 82 Its approach emphasizes housing the chronically homeless as a means of providing the support and resources to deal with addiction, mental illness, unemployment, and other drivers of homelessness. Streets to Homes relies on “multi-disciplinary outreach teams” and provides “rent subsidies…[for] housing in the private rental market, with cooperation from landlords.”Footnote 83
Though S2H has produced good outcomes for many, it remains vulnerable to criticism and has been viewed with skepticism by some in the homeless community. This is partly because it has not solved the homelessness problem, given its focus on the chronically homeless instead of the much larger transient, precarious, or inadequately housed population. As Doberstein observes: “S2H has successfully housed thousands of individuals since it was first piloted,” yet “occupancy of emergency shelters has grown to four thousand on any given night, and…many are using shelters as their long-term housing, suggesting that S2H leaves many unattended.”Footnote 84
Insofar as it seeks to engage homeless people as partners, S2H can be thought of as a human-rights-based approach. Yet, like all HF programs, its reliance on the PRS undermines key features of the right to housing. Affordability and availability are long-standing issues in Toronto’s PRS,Footnote 85 to say nothing of the lack of security of tenure that the PRS provides.
Issues of affordability and availability were also seen in Lethbridge and across Alberta once the province switched to an HF model for reducing homelessness.Footnote 86 The dependence of BLH on subsidized rental units in the PRS meant that it relied on the cooperation of landlords and building managers. This sometimes required special arrangements and even legal education for landlords, building managers, and tenants on rights and obligations vis-à-vis the tenants’ use of the property and their lease. Notably, funding was provided to Lethbridge Legal Guidance to “provide specific support to Housing First clients and landlords to educate and assist with landlord–tenant issues.”Footnote 87
As with S2H, BLH was criticized for not comprehensively tackling issues faced by the homeless community. In particular, the racialized nature of the housing market proved too complicated for the scheme to resolve, with the program’s Indigenous and First Nations participants bearing the brunt of the discrimination. As Gaetz and Scott note: “Racism is an ongoing issue for Aboriginal People in Lethbridge. Housing First staff specifically ask landlords if they ‘rent to natives’ in an attempt to avoid future problems for their clients.”Footnote 88 Thus while BLH may have sought to emphasize the right to housing, it exposed the lack of equality in the PRS. Theoretically, such racial discrimination is prohibited under the Alberta Human Rights Act, but such discrimination may be hard to prove.Footnote 89
The success of BLH is mixed. Gaetz and Scott note that “[t]he data from Lethbridge demonstrates that Housing First is an effective means of supporting people experiencing homelessness in securing and maintaining housing.”Footnote 90 Yet, in Lethbridge, and across Alberta, there are “recurring challenges with housing affordability” which undercut both client choice—in that they may have to take whatever is available—and the importance of affordability to the right to housing.Footnote 91 In turn, affordability touches on security of tenure and location, both key components of the right to housing.
In sum, attempts to progressively realize the right to housing in Canada via HF programs are caught between the ideals of human rights that they aspire to and the practicalities of the housing markets in which they operate. The emphasis on choice, in particular, is diminished given the lack of affordable housing. This is not the fault of HF, however, as HF programs seek micro-realizations of the right to housing and cannot challenge the macro-level constraints on housing and welfare. In short, HF can realize the right to housing on a case-by-case basis but cannot do so for everyone. What the shortcomings of HF illustrate is that, by itself, HF cannot fully realize the right to housing; it is reliant on a range of policies. The experiences of Finland and Scotland make this point clear and thus further highlight that Canada’s NHS is at risk of becoming a missed opportunity to permanently reduce homelessness.
IV. Reducing Homelessness in Finland: Paavo I and II
Although Finland has a generous system of social security, its pattern of housing tenure is similar to Canada’s. In 2014, approximately 65% of Finns were owner-occupiersFootnote 92 while, according to Statistics Canada, in 2016, the rate of owner-occupation in Canada was 67.8%.Footnote 93 There is significant regional variation in the Canadian context with owner-occupation ranging from 55.7% in Montreal to 77.8% in Oshawa, as well as variation depending on age group.Footnote 94 This pattern is also seen in Finland, with younger persons more likely to be tenants.Footnote 95
Outside of owner-occupation, 4% of Finns live in cooperative housing, 17% in the PRS, and 14% in social housing.Footnote 96 In terms of its PRS, Finland liberalized its rental laws in the 1990s and removed strict rental controls.Footnote 97 Meanwhile, Canada’s PRS varies from province to province, with some provinces being more liberal than others. As a general rule, there are relatively weak protections for tenants in most provinces.Footnote 98 As of 2018, about 32% of Canadian households are in the PRS.Footnote 99
Roughly 70% of Finns are eligible for social housing. Here, Finland diverges from Canada, where only a much smaller proportion are eligible for social housing. In the 2016 census 575,830 people, or about 1.6% of the population, lived in social housing in Canada.Footnote 100 In 2018, the Canadian Housing Survey recorded that 1.9% of households in Canada had at least one member on a waiting list for social and affordable housing.Footnote 101 As such, the numbers living in or eligible for social housing in Canada are much smaller than Finland.
In addition to greater eligibility for social housing, the Finnish constitution explicitly references the right to housing. Section 19 states “[t]he public authorities shall promote the right of everyone to housing and the opportunity to arrange their own housing.”Footnote 102 Scheinin described section 19 as “relatively unambitious,”Footnote 103 with others noting its “relatively faint” positive legal effects.Footnote 104 Writing a few years after Finland’s mid-1990s constitutional overhaul, Ilveskivi noted that “the right to housing is neither protected as an individual right by the Constitution nor by ordinary legislation.”Footnote 105
While section 19 of the Finnish constitution is not legally enforceable, its importance was long noted. Ilveskivi observed that the right to housing has been “stressed as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of other fundamental rights such as the right to privacy.”Footnote 106 In addition, section 19 is related to other welfare rights which are legally enforceable through the courts. One example of this is section 7 of the Finnish constitution, which guarantees the right to life, and, given the severity of the Finnish climate, the right to life includes the right to emergency shelter.Footnote 107
Despite its generous social security system and a constitutional reference to the right to housing,Footnote 108 Finland, in the early 2000s, saw increasing concerns about homelessness.Footnote 109 The concern centred on the long-term homeless, who made up almost half of the total homeless population.Footnote 110 Tainio and Fredriksson note that the elimination of homelessness has been a government objective in Finland since 1987.Footnote 111 They point out that this involved “enhanced” cooperation between “the housing, social welfare and health authorities.”Footnote 112 Nonetheless, the approach adopted in the 1980s and 1990s was the “staircase” model, which was less effective at targeting specific sub-categories of homeless individuals.Footnote 113 At a housing rights conference in 2006, participants noted that the continued existence of homelessness indicated that “a clearer legal regulation is to be desired.”Footnote 114
In response, Finland developed a two-stage national program known as Paavo I and II.Footnote 115 The first part of the program aimed at halving homelessness while the second aimed to eliminate it altogether, and both relied on an adapted HF approach. Crucially, Paavo I involved multiple national ministries and several local governments so that the resulting strategy would be “coherent [and] integrated.”Footnote 116 Those involved included “the Ministry of Social Affairs [and Health], the Housing Finance and Development Centre,” commonly known by its Finnish acronym ARA, and the “slot machine association.”Footnote 117 The high level of cooperation speaks to a significant political and national will to address the issue.
The Finnish solution differs from other HF programs in a few key ways. The first is its focus on long-term homelessness. In this respect, as Pleace et al. noted, Paavo I and II adapted HF to the Finnish situation.Footnote 118 Finland also opted to follow a “single-site” rather than “scattered-site” approach to housing those who had been homeless for a long time,Footnote 119 converting existing homeless shelters and temporary accommodation into self-contained apartments.Footnote 120
The single-site approach in HF strategies is often criticized. Studies from Australia and Denmark suggest that single-site approaches are less successful than scattered-site approaches.Footnote 121 Single-site approaches also run counter to individual choice, on which HF is predicated. As such, single-site approaches seem to undermine the core features of the right to housing. Yet the single-site approach can address the social isolation and hostility of others that can be seen under a scattered-site approach, in particular the phenomenon of nimbyism.Footnote 122 The Finnish experience has been more positive than that of Australia or Denmark, though not a universal success.Footnote 123 Overall, the Finnish experience of HF has proven to be effective, and while, as yet, there has not been a complete eradication of homelessness, there was a significant reduction, particularly among the long-term homeless.Footnote 124 The number of people who were suffering from long-term homelessness decreased by 36% under Paavo. Footnote 125
Based on a report on Paavo I, there are links between the success of HF and the rental market more generally. For example, Tampere was the most successful city in reaching its targets for reducing homelessness. Tampere’s success is attributed to the continued production of rental housing, funded by ARA, in the city.Footnote 126 Conversely, Helsinki, while exceeding its targets vis-à-vis reducing long-term homelessness, saw increases in temporary and recurrent homelessness. These increases were due to migration to Helsinki, the declining economic situation, and “the lack of an affordable rental dwelling.”Footnote 127 As such, the principles underlying HF cry out for integration into a broader strategy for housing in general in order to address the limitations seen above.
Paavo I also saw some cities in Finland extend and entrench housing advice services.Footnote 128 Such an initiative reflects efforts seen in other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, to prevent evictions and thus address homelessness before it occurs.Footnote 129 It also illustrates the interlocking nature of HF as implemented in Finland. The resulting program focused on much more than simply housing those who were homeless. Again, the support offered by housing advice services reflects the ways in which homelessness is a systemic issue which requires shifts in thinking about housing more generally. The Finnish experience suggests that measures which respect the right to housing for all, such as housing support services, are a key component in preventing and reducing homelessness.
V. Scotland’s Anti-Homelessness Measures: An Alternative to HF and Programmatic Rights
Since the late 1970s, certain categories of homeless people in Great Britain have had a legal right to “long-term rehousing.”Footnote 130 Unusually in the transnational context, these rights were and remain enforceable through the courts. As housing is one of the devolved powers of the Scottish government, Scotland was able to change the statutory duty in 2012 so that it applied to virtually all categories of homeless people.Footnote 131
The proportion of Scottish owner-occupation is similar to that of Finland and Canada, and, again, the levels of owner-occupation vary from region to region.Footnote 132 About 14% of the Scottish population lives in the PRS,Footnote 133 with roughly 24% of the population living in some form of social housing.Footnote 134 It is these elevated levels of social housing which set Scotland apart from Canada.
In 2003, the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act allowed for the abolition of the “priority need category” in assessing whether a local authority had a duty to house a person.Footnote 135 The goal was to give local authorities warning that their responsibilities were about to change. The priority need test was abolished as of 31 December 2012.Footnote 136 As a result, anyone who is assessed as being unintentionally homeless has the right to settled accommodation, typically provided by the more secure tenancies seen in social housing. “Unintentionally homeless” is defined by the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, s 24, which states that a person is homeless if they have no accommodation, and that a person “shall not be treated as having accommodation unless it is accommodation which it would be reasonable for him to continue to occupy”; accommodation which leaves a person at risk of abuse is excluded from accommodation for the purposes of this section.Footnote 137 As with Finland’s preventive provisions under Paavo, Scotland has a program known as Housing Options, which seeks to prevent homelessness by finding solutions for those threatened with homelessness.Footnote 138 Housing Options is also seen in the rest of the United Kingdom, and has been credited with causing a reduction in homelessness in England and Wales.Footnote 139
One weakness of Scotland’s statutory scheme is the question of defining whether a person is unintentionally homeless.Footnote 140 In the English context, scholars have hypothesized that the definitional aspect is one reason why the numbers of homeless people decreased when they might have otherwise been expected to increase.Footnote 141 So, too, must the claimant prove links with the relevant local authority, which, again, leaves scope for discretion. For example, figures produced by Shelter Scotland—a leading homelessness charity—illustrate that 36,855 applied to be declared unintentionally homeless in 2019–2020 but only 31,333 were assessed as homeless.Footnote 142 Admittedly, the emphasis on rehousing in the social sector reduces choice, though it will be more affordable and offer a more secure tenure. Consequently, Scotland’s measures respect several core features of the right to housing but not all. Nonetheless, the granting of a legal right arguably respects homeless people as rights-holders in a manner that fits with a human-rights-based approach.
Weaknesses aside, the Scottish measures have proven successful. In 2010–2011, 41,530 were assessed as homeless and this dropped to 28,226 in 2015–2016.Footnote 143 Strikingly, a study by Watts suggests that Scotland’s measures have also had a psychological impact. Watts argues that granting a clearly defined legal right to homeless people empowers them and promotes self-reliance.Footnote 144 Given Watts’s small sample size, there is an urgent need for further study to see whether this holds more broadly. Watts also cautions that the Scottish legal right to housing is successful because of its form: “simpl[e] and blunt.”Footnote 145
It is clear that Scotland’s statutory innovations go hand-in-hand with other programs such as Housing Options. Admittedly, the numbers assessed as homeless have increased since 2015–2016, to 31,333 in 2019–2020.Footnote 146 The increase suggests that Scotland’s anti-homelessness initiatives are not going far enough. The rise in homelessness may be related to recent changes in welfare payments, known as Universal Credit, which have resulted in delays in payments and have forced recipients to rely on food banks and other support services.Footnote 147 The roll-out of Universal Credit for new welfare claimants in Scotland was completed in late 2018, and, while the increase in homelessness after 2018 may be coincidental, it is reasonable to assume at least some cases are linked.Footnote 148 In an echo of Ilveskivi’s point about Finland’s right to housing, Scotland’s right to housing is connected with welfare programs.
VI. Lessons for Canada
The first and most obvious lesson for Canada from Finland and Scotland is that homelessness can be reduced. However, existing experiences with realizing the right to housing in Canada, as set out in parts II and III, suggest there are issues which may yet prevent the NHS from eliminating chronic homelessness and realizing the right to housing. In this section we set out both the barriers Canada faces in addressing chronic homelessness and the lessons it could learn from the Finnish and Scottish experiences.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, barrier is Canada’s constitutional and political structure. Unlike Finland, which is a unitary state, and Scotland, which has a devolved government with statutory powers derived from legislation enacted by the central government, Canada is a federal state. As such, it is harder to gather the sort of national political will that prompted Paavo I and II in Finland, and which saw the abolition of priority need in Scotland. The NHS requires bilateral agreements with provincial governments to collaborate and coordinate on housing policies and, given the lack of unanimity amongst provincial, territorial, municipal and Indigenous governments, the NHS cannot hope to be as coherent and unified as Finland and Scotland’s anti-homelessness strategies are. To give one example, under the Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) Partnership in Housing “each province and territory can design and implement its own programs,” but “there is some uncertainty regarding the design of initiatives” due to “ongoing bilateral negotiations.”Footnote 149 Admittedly, it is unlikely that a one-size-fits all approach would work for Canada given the variation across the country, but the ongoing discussions further reinforce that the federal government still does not have consensus in the way that Finland had for Paavo.
The second barrier is Canada’s lack of social housing and minimal welfare supports. Finland and Scotland have more robust supplies of social housing and more people who are eligible for social housing and welfare than Canada and these supports were crucial in reducing homelessness in both countries. The dearth of affordable housing is a recurring theme on studies of HF’s implementation in Canada,Footnote 150 and its shortage undermines the security of tenure and affordability essential to the right to housing. Given the evidence suggesting social housing has a key role to play in reducing and preventing homelessness,Footnote 151 Canada cannot hope to realize the right to housing for all Canadians without a stronger social housing sector. Disappointingly, despite the NHS’s promises in 2016 of increased funding for social or other forms of affordable housing in Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s (PBO) 2019 report suggests that there will be less funding than expected.Footnote 152
Tied to the need for social housing is the need for better welfare programs. Scotland’s recent experiences provide a stark example of this, as it seems to be changes to welfare payments which have prompted an increase in homelessness. Yet, Canada’s experiences with HF also illustrate the shortcomings of its welfare system. In Alberta, for example, an issue with HF is that the housing payments to welfare claimants fall far short of the average rents in Alberta.Footnote 153 This over-reliance on the PRS is a weakness because “it leaves HF programs vulnerable to rising rents and low vacancy rates.”Footnote 154 One option is to increase the amount available via housing support, and in March 2020, the government announced a new rent subsidy program, the Canada Housing Benefit, applicable against housing in the PRS for specific categories of people, with the costs to be shared with the provinces so that each province may tailor the program for its needs.Footnote 155 As heartening as this is, a study from the United Kingdom indicates that social housing is cheaper than rental subsidies.Footnote 156 This study was prompted by media reports that significant numbers of former council houses (i.e., social housing) were owned by landlords.Footnote 157 Hence, rent subsidies should not be a replacement for increased levels of funding for social housing.
The Canada Housing Benefit could function as a stopgap measure until additional social housing becomes available. However, the funding for social housing could actually be reduced under the NHS’s cost-matching provisions,Footnote 158 and under the FPT Partnership, funding may be used for “construction, renovation, or affordability supports.”Footnote 159 As such, there is no guarantee that additional units of social housing will become available.
There is also concern among Indigenous communities about the unequal distribution of funding under the NHS. The PBO’s report notes that “total spending on Indigenous housing is expected to be substantially lower than over the prior 10 years.”Footnote 160 This is particularly concerning given the racism noted in Lethbridge’s PRS and the importance of culturally appropriate housing for a full realization of the right to housing, particularly for Indigenous communities.Footnote 161
All of this suggests that if Canada is serious about the right to housing, the NHS needs to go much further. In 2000, Harris described Canadian housing policy as “more American than the United States,”Footnote 162 because, rather than walk a middle line between the more interventionist British approach and the American individualistic approach, Canadian housing policy was “highly individualistic.”Footnote 163 While the NHS is a break with that traditional preference for the private sector to meet housing needs, it is not as ambitious a break as it needs to be to realize the right to housing, particularly in the context of affordability and security of tenure.
A further point which should be borne in mind is whether or not the NHS’s accountability mechanisms will prove effective. Given that the NHS Act was only passed in 2019, it is too early to tell whether the National Housing Council or Federal Advocate will have much of an effect. However, the NHS’s explicit commitment to the progressive realization of the right to housing risks leaving homeless people with no effective redress for the violation of their right should they remain homeless. Indeed, it should be noted that HF, Canada’s preferred policy in reducing homelessness, fails to grant homeless people any form of redress should they remain unhoused. Given its reliance on the PRS, HF cannot grant the sort of legal right to housing seen in Scotland, as this could conflict with landlords’ rights. While HF succeeds in housing some, it cannot guarantee security of tenure, affordability, or even choice. As such, HF, as it is practised across Canada, addresses the prima facie violation of the right to housing that homelessness represents without fully realizing the right to housing itself. Arguably, until Canada increases its stocks of social housing, the NHS likely cannot grant the sort of right seen in Scotland, though it would be desirable to have some clear, enforceable rights for homeless people and corresponding duties for government.
That being said, addressing the prima facie violation of the right to housing, albeit tentatively, is better than nothing. To this end, there are additional steps which Canada could take under the NHS to begin to realize the right to housing for homeless Canadians. For example, Finland converted its homeless shelters into long-term housing, an option Canada could follow, provided all levels of government cooperate. However, flowing from the S2H experiment in Toronto,Footnote 164 and given the harsh climate in much of Canada, it is likely that some form of emergency accommodation will continue to be needed.
A further initiative under the NHS which could be implemented sooner is the “Community Based Tenant Initiative.”Footnote 165 This initiative seems comparable to the housing advice offered in FinlandFootnote 166 and to the Housing Options program which has proven effective in the United Kingdom. Notably, Paavo created legal instruments designed specifically to protect tenants from hasty or unlawful evictions.Footnote 167 Such protections for tenants are sorely needed in Canada’s PRS and could prevent homelessness before it happens. Such a measure could also provide relief for tenants until more affordable housing is developed.
The NHS’s target to eliminate chronic homelessness is an ambitious but achievable goal. By exploring how Finland and Scotland have reduced homelessness—but also how their efforts have sometimes fallen short—we have illustrated the centrality of a commitment to the right to housing, the links this right has with broader welfare issues and pressures on housing supply, and the importance of political will and clear, legal commitments to providing housing. Canada has the opportunity to learn these lessons, apply them in Canada, and achieve the NHS’s laudable goal of eliminating chronic homelessness.