Talking to Ottawa: Strategic Advocacy for Affordable Housing

A Home for the Housing Sector

 

The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association is the only national association which speaks for the full spectrum of affordable housing in Canada. Our base extends from coast to coast to coast with every province and territory holding CHRA membership. Like no other group, CHRA’s growing and diverse membership represents all areas of the affordable housing sector – from non-profit housing providers to municipalities and provincial/territorial housing departments/agencies to businesses, organizations providing affordable homeownership, and non-profit organizations supporting homeless and vulnerable populations.

 

By bringing the sector together, CHRA makes systemic, collective action possible that addresses the full spectrum of housing needs for all citizens: from supportive housing to rent-geared-to-income to affordable rental developments and homeownership opportunities. We are a home for the housing sector.

 

With 45 years of history behind us, CHRA represents this sector to the federal government in Ottawa. We regularly meet with federal political leaders, their staff and key government departments to advocate for the funds and policies that will ensure all Canadians can access and afford the type of housing they need.

 

The Ottawa Landscape

 

But the landscape – economic, social and political – has shifted significantly since the current federal programs were introduced. We live in a time of prolonged economic downturns worldwide and in Canada with growing disparity between the highest income earners and the rest of society, which results in greater and more complex housing needs. We have conservative federal leadership in an Ottawa characterized by declining federal funding of social programs and socially-purposed NGOs leaving far greater competition among us all for these more scarce public funds. Elected with a majority, the federal government has not identified affordable housing in and of itself as a priority.

 

Yet, other conservative governments, provincially/territorially, internationally and indeed this government –which allocated a $1 billion economic stimulus package for social housing renovation and retrofit in its previous mandate – have invested in affordable housing and homelessness programs.

 

So, against this landscape of constraint and possibility, the CHRA Board of Directors is engaging in a new advocacy strategy and looks to the sector itself to come together and craft the story of what Canada can do to adequately house its citizens.

 

Making Housing Heard on the Hill

 

We’ve planned an interactive session at Congress using state-of-the-art engagement tools to seek your input on priorities and strategies. This discussion paper kick-starts the conversation. Distilled from a variety of assessments and analyses on advocacy approaches over the past decade, the paper presents five essential elements our strategy must contain. These elements can take many forms and the better we shape them, the more successful our advocacy. With your ideas, CHRA’s work will lead to better programs, better policies and better funding for affordable housing across Canada.

 

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should be not victory, but progress” – Joseph Joubert, Pensées

 

 

 

The Five Themes

 

The five themes central to CHRA’s advocacy strategy are:

 

  • Positioning – how we frame the question of affordable housing and homelessness and the context within which we develop our arguments and rationales in response.

 

  • Focus – if Positioning speaks to how we ask the question, Focus is about how we answer it and articulate clear proposals to address the issues raised.

 

  • Partnerships – how can we enlist other private, public and third sector partners as leverage to attract and augment federal funding for affordable housing.

 

  • Social entrepreneurship – what are the opportunities we have within the social economy to increase our access to capital and to develop new products and services that benefit the principles and the people of the sector.

 

  • Cooperation – broadly-based support within the full continuum of affordable housing and outreach to non-traditional allies show housing issues extend far beyond a narrow constituency.

 

 

1.  POSITIONING

Appropriately, having emerged from concerns of human rights and dignity, the affordable housing sector traditionally positions the issue as a rights-based entitlement for all members of society. Like most others, CHRA has tended toward this approach and been successful with it in earlier years. More recently, however, Ottawa has been less receptive to issues framed this way and resistant to solving a problem they simply don’t see. While the reality of these arguments continues undiminished and foundational, CHRA can attract new understanding and support by emphasizing fresh arguments and by defining inadequate housing as a problem that impinges on employment, health outcomes, educational achievement, incarceration and recidivism, energy usage, settlement, income, aging-in-place, etc.  Beyond promoting a cross-sectoral articulation of the issue, housing matters can be linked to government priorities and items on the public agenda: for example, rural and remote communities; mental health; poverty reduction; regional economic development, and public health.

·         How do we position the issue of affordable housing and homelessness in Ottawa?

·         What issues on the public agenda speak directly to housing?

·         Where do Ottawa’s priorities and housing needs align?

 

 

2.  FOCUS

For quite a few years, CHRA has asked the federal government to increase its funding for housing and to make a multi-year commitment to allow predictable and long-term funding. To oversimplify, the problem was always the lack of affordable housing; the solution was always more funding rather than specific programs with clear objectives, costs, timeframes, participants, implementation plans and results. To the new landscape, add intensive media and public scrutiny of government spending and accountability and it is clear that successful proposals will be those that are viable, possible and implementable. Further, as CHRA develops its new positioning it will have a wider variety of options for consideration. Defining our focus means greater precision and clarity, rather than a narrowing of opportunity.

·         What are the big issues we should prepare proposals for: e.g., maintenance of social housing stock, growth of rental housing, energy retrofits, social impact bonds, alternative finance models?

·         Are there examples of successful affordable housing programs at the local or provincial levels that can be undertaken and advocated for nationally?

·         Which initiatives now underway would have the most traction in Ottawa: retrofits, new builds, rent supplements, income support?

 

 

3.  LEVERAGING PARTNERSHIPS 

Organizations that demonstrate their ability to leverage federal dollars with other sources of funding increase the possibility of success in federal funding proposals. The 2012 federal budget signals a plan to test ways of maximizing the impact of federal spending including pay-for-performance agreements and encouraging leveraging of private sector resources. In addition to the private sector, other potential sources of funding could include other levels of government such as provincial or municipal. They could also be other not-for-profit organizations or for-profit organizations whose interests intersect with our own, for example, mental health and addiction support services, skills development and job training. This leveraging underlies the increasingly referenced social economy.

 

One of the earliest and most successful examples of social economy in the housing sector is the Regent Park Revitalization Project, an innovative plan to provide over 6,000 mixed-income housing units, recreational facilities and commercial spaces to thousands of residents living in this revitalized community. It was partly financed by $450M worth of market-rate bonds sold to provincial governments, pension funds and institutional investors. A partnership between social-economy stakeholders and the Québec Government is now underway which will allow social and joint funding, controlled by community housing actors to fund new social housing projects in Québec.  Another model is the P3 Canada Fund, which BC Housing optimized to partner with the federal government to renovate and restore 13 provincially-owned Single Room Occupancy hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

·         Is there a role CHRA can play as an intermediary between the affordable housing sector and the financial sector?

·         What are the opportunities and risks in public-private partnerships? And what can CHRA offer to maximize and minimize them accordingly?

 

 

4.  SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Social Impact Bonds (SIB) are a leveraging tool used in the UK and elsewhere and according to the recent federal budget will soon be explored in Canada to encourage the development of government-community partnerships. Distinct from other forms of bonds, the SIB is a financial instrument that raises private capital and links financial returns to the achievement of a social outcome. Successful SIB outcomes will create improvements in the system that create cost savings as well as social benefits, and so fund financial returns to the private capital. 

 

A major component of the social economy is social enterprise, defined as any organization or business that uses market-oriented production and sale of goods and/or services to pursue a public benefit mission. This covers many organizational forms – ranging from enterprising charities, non-profits and co-operatives to social purpose businesses, which are for-profit businesses designed to fulfill a social mission. Canadians are excellent social entrepreneurs and housing providers lead in this area. With constrained public funding and population groups with increasingly complex needs, the housing and supportive services providers have developed various business lines, products or services that benefit their bottom line and their clients, for example, home energy retrofits that pay for themselves that reduce poverty, make housing more affordable and create jobs and economic development.

 

·         What are the goods, services and business models particularly suited to affordable housing and homelessness organizations and the people they serve?

·         What are other social finance instruments CHRA should explore?

·         What support would housing and support services providers need to embark on a social enterprise?

 

5.  COOPERATION

Broad-based support makes a difference in representations to all governments. Especially in a sector as diversified as affordable housing, CHRA increases our credibility by playing a leadership role and being seen as a coordinating organization representing all facets of the housing and homeless sector. Effective national campaigns feature strong member support at the local level, with messages reinforced with local expertise and the actual experience of each community and each individual touched by our issue. Showing results in a personal, positive light means showing success as a progression in people’s lives.

 

Beyond our own members, we can achieve broad-based support by forming partnerships

with like-minded organizations to collaborate and concentrate efforts. Informal coalitions with other housing sector groups help keep the affordable element at the top of the housing agenda in Ottawa. Working in tandem with other sector groups and allies amplifies our message. Additional outreach to the “unusual suspects” to bring them onboard says that affordable housing is a widely-held concern and is not to be relegated to a niche issue. There is huge untapped potential in this endeavour.

 

Private sector partners can contribute significantly to our issue and our organization. They can bring financial resources, educational opportunities, information and best practices.  Possible partners include businesses, including industry associations, working in traditional sectors such as construction, development, real estate, insurance, etc. There is also a role for financial sector to play in assisting with financing.

The current government’s move towards reducing the size of the federal government may be a catalyst for CHRA to fulfill our role as a home for the housing sector and claim our place as a leader for change.

 

·         Who are the groups, sectors and industries CHRA should reach out to? Who else apart from the “usual suspects”?

·         Which issues are best suited to workings in coalition with other organizations?

·         How can we better integrate the full continuum of affordable housing which includes issues of affordable homeownership, ending homelessness, available rental stock, supportive housing, family housing and other – to work together so that everyone has a place to call home?

 

“Talking to Ottawa” depends upon the full support of our membership. CHRA will continue this dialogue and we encourage you to let us know your ideas on these or other positions in the paper. We welcome your ideas. Please send your views and comments to:

 

Canadian Housing and Renewal Association

info@chra-achru.ca

613-596-3007

 

Advocacy is as much a listening and learning exercise as it is a speaking and teaching exercise – Ottawa pundit

 

CHRA gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Housing Services Corporation in making this paper and the Talking to Ottawa session possible.