Why investing in community housing can be worth every penny (and more) to the economy

Last week, the Trudeau government pledged $1.3 billion to improve the dilapidated social housing stock maintained by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, Canada’s largest public sector landlord.

The billion-plus dollar commitment in loans and investments over 10 years is much needed: Toronto’s social housing has been in need of major repairs for decades.

But is throwing money at social housing really an efficient use of government funds?

The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

From a cost-benefit perspective, investing in social housing is one of the best investments governments can make to ensure the socio-economic health and prosperity of growing cities.

Research by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA) reveals “that investment in affordable housing not only provides shelter to those who cannot afford market rents but also offers billions of dollars in socio-economic benefits.”

The funding announced last week couldn’t have come sooner. For years, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) has been advocating desperately for the money needed to bring its social housing stock into a state of good repair. The City of Toronto has led the investment drive for years yet, until recently, it could not get either the province or the feds to partner in refurbishing the 2,100 buildings the agency oversees.

In the past, adequate shelter was considered an “elemental human need” in Canada. The former Liberal government of prime minister Pierre Trudeau introduced several reforms to the National Housing Act in 1973. However, over the years, the federal and provincial roles in social housing have declined, leaving many municipalities to struggle to maintain the programs.

TCHC’s challenges are large and complex owing to the size of its operations. Over 110,000 residents are housed in TCHC-supported housing. Of those, 38 per cent of residents are children and youth and 25 per cent are seniors. Furthermore, 28 per cent of the households are single-parent families, and 23 per cent of residents face mental health challenges.

The deteriorating social housing conditions create an image of blight that deters, at times, even the necessary service providers from visiting the premises. In summer 2009, paramedics near downtown Toronto waited outside a high-rise building for the police to arrive while a man bled to death inside. The paramedics were “concerned for their own safety.”

The Liberal government’s commitment of $1.3 billion is part loan ($810 million) and part investment ($530 million). The money will be invested in restoring the 58,000 units maintained by TCHC. The recent announcement is part of the $13.2 billion National Co-Investment Fund.

The economic and social benefits of investing in affordable housing are manifold and go well beyond affording shelter to those who can’t afford market rents.

In a comprehensive simulation-based economic analysis, CANCEA estimated that an almost six-billion-dollar investment in social housing in Toronto over 30 years would contribute $14.3 billion to the economy while creating 158,000 person-years of employment.

CANCEA went beyond estimating the usual economic benefits and explored health and safety benefits. Safe and affordable living environments promote healthy living because the inhabitants are less likely to fall ill due to inadequate housing. Their analysis estimated that the investment in social housing over 30 years will result in 2.1 million fewer visits to healthcare facilities that would amount to $3.8 billion in healthcare savings.

CANCEA even estimated that crime would be 15 per cent lower in TCHC projects as a result of improved living conditions.

The reduction in crime and improved housing will also have spatial spillover effects: they would improve valuation of the neighbouring properties, CANCEA found, contributing another $13.6 billion to the area’s wealth over 30 years.

The refurbished units are likely to be equipped with energy saving appliances and retrofitted with efficient windows resulting in lesser energy consumption and reduced utility bills.

The case for improved living conditions for the most vulnerable in society must be made on moral grounds. We are reminded that adequate housing is an elemental human need. Still, a dollar and cents evaluation of bringing the social housing stock to a state of good repair offers strong evidence that the money will be well spent.

Murtaza Haider is an associate professor at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at www.hmbulletin.com.