Housing watchdog at risk as Liberals worry about too much bureaucracy

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OTTAWA — Worried that they’d create too much new bureaucracy by hiring a new watchdog and setting up an adjudication system to enforce a right to housing they’ve promised, the federal Liberals appear ready to back off both.

The Liberals’ decade-long housing strategy, released a year ago, promised to recognize a right for every Canadian to have adequate housing and to remove government roadblocks to getting it, alongside aggressive spending to build and repair affordable housing units.

Under the $40-billion plan, that right was to be boosted by a federal housing advocate who would give people recourse if federal policy gets in the way of their ability to access an affordable place to live. The position was supposed to “launch” last spring or summer.

Individual claims, like a dispute between a landlord and tenant, wouldn’t be captured by the system but a dedicated public advocate could flag systemic, policy or legislative hurdles for people looking to get into social housing, for example. He or she could point out practices that cause people to be homeless, such as discharging children from welfare who don’t have anywhere to go.

The Liberals promised legislation this fall to enshrine the housing strategy and right to housing in law. Sources say behind-the-scenes debate over the summer about the scope of the legislation has delayed it.

Asked last week, Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos didn’t say when legislation would be introduced.

“We have all the ingredients to make the right introduction of this important rights-based approach to the national housing strategy,” Duclos said in an interview. “We will be moving relatively speedily on that because the (time left in the Liberals’) mandate is obviously short.”

With time running out on the parliamentary calendar, federal officials have been telling the housing sector that the Liberals are now considering putting legislation on a right to housing — and the housing strategy itself — inside next year’s budget-implementation bill instead of giving it its own bill. That would fast-track the housing plan in Parliament by reducing the chances for MPs to debate it.

Duclos said in an interview last week that it became apparent a few weeks after the big launch of the strategy that advocates “wanted us to engage more fully with them so that we get that rights-based approach right.”

So the Liberals launched consultations on the scope of a right to housing. The final report was released last week.

The report talks about general support to help people access housing, differing views on how to define housing as a right, and concerns that federal efforts would only create expensive bureaucracy.

An adjudication system received passing mention late in the report. Sources with knowledge of the government’s thinking, speaking on condition of anonymity to divulge details of private conversations, say government officials appear leery about creating what could become a new, expensive bureaucracy and adjudication system.

Housing advocates say a watered-down watchdog and adjudication system wouldn’t just hurt the 1.7 million people who live in homes that either don’t fit their needs or that they can’t really afford. They argue it would also hurt the Liberals’ planned spending for the housing strategy, most of which will take place after next year’s election.

“We know that rights-based housing approaches are the most effective approach to resolving homelessness and housing need,” said Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. “Without these rights-based approaches, I think, the national housing strategy will not be as effective as it could be and may not meet its objectives.”

Rather than seeking a whole new system to handle hearings, Richter’s group and others went public Monday with a proposal for the Liberals to consider setting up the housing advocate in the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He or she could handle cases without involving courts, lawyers or binding judicial orders on government.

The group is also providing proposed wording for legislation, hoping to prod the Liberals into moving.

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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press