In time for the federal election, the Mowat Centre, an independent public policy think tank at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, has partnered with others to launch a new project – a conversation among policymakers and the public – “about the best ways to update Canada’s social architecture.”

Each paper written to support the project provides an overview of a particular policy issue and presents some potential short-term and long-term options for consideration. What is meant by ‘social architecture?’ As the Mowat Centre explains,

We use the term social architecture as short-hand for the broad array of social services, programs and benefits that provide insurance against risk and protection for the vulnerable in Canada. These programs are based on the broadly-shared idea that every Canadian ought to be able to satisfy basic needs of housing, food and clothing; that they enjoy equality of opportunity; that the government ought to provide certain public and social goods; and that Canadians ought to pool risk collectively to more efficiently protect against risk of unemployment, disability, and sickness.

The purpose of this project – bringing together researchers from the Mowat Centre, Caledon Institute for Social Policy, Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity and Institute for Research on Public Policy – is to explore opportunities to strengthen Canada’s social architecture. One of the first papers released in the series, by Noah Zon, focuses on the challenge that 1 in 7 Canadian households face: the inability to find decent housing without spending over 30 per cent of their income. As Zon writes:

When housing becomes unaffordable, it has ripple effects for low-income households in other areas of their lives. The cost of housing can crowd out spending on health and education, or otherwise force cutbacks on day-to-day costs like nutritious food. These pressures can have long-term costs to these individuals and to society in increased need for health and social services and lost productivity. At their most extreme, housing affordability pressures can push people into homelessness, with devastating impacts on health and high costs to hospital emergency rooms and shelters.

Zon summarizes areas of public policy aimed at enhancing access to housing – focusing specifically on the challenges facing low-income renters – and how these policies and programs are in need of renewal. Recommendations include: reinvestment in the current social and affordable housing stock (and the non-profits that deliver housing); promotion of additional market housing (especially rental); integration of housing supports with other social and economic programs; and having the openness to pursue new approaches. It’s time to put multiple options on the table. As Zon writes: 

To get those worthwhile investments right, policy makers should be prepared to take a hard look at the costs and benefits of both existing programs and their alternatives. The current approach of incremental new investments in the face of massive need and growing waitlists is untenable from the standpoint of equity or sound public policy.