Canada: Local Tools To Implement The Right To Adequate Housing

A construction crane set against a city twilight
photo by booledozer is licensed under CC ZERO 1.0
High, certainly, but not the point. 'Highest and Best Use' of city land — Is that: 'condos for flipping and tax revenues,' or 'housing that serves the city affordably needs?'

One thing you can say about local governments – they really can’t turn away from the housing struggles of their residents. And to their credit, local governments in Canada have stepped up to lead innovations in homelessness programming, to prevent homelessness and to add/protect the housing stock that is affordable for residents with low incomes.

Local governments have also faced their share of criticism for clearing encampments and their lack of efforts to make private rental housing safe and affordable. This latest resource from the National Right To Housing Network should give local Canadian governments a lift in their efforts to improve the housing situation for their poorest residents.

The federal National Housing Strategy Act gives all governments in Canada a green light to implement policies and programs to end homelessness as well as to ensure that everyone in the country has housing that is safe and affordable. It means grounding housing in human need.

This might not seem like a big deal, but until now, judges have declined to rule on housing rights on the basis that there was no guiding legislation to inform the decisions. The National Housing Strategy Act connects the Canadian right to adequate housing to the United Nations guidance on the right to adequate housing.

For example, municipal governments have been operating on the principle of highest and best use of land. In the current context, highest and best use of land is determined mainly by economic value. In this view, a parcel of land with a 50 year old rental apartment building is ripe to be torn down. The existing building is holding the parcel back from achieving its potential economic value.

The right to adequate housing legislation challenges the primacy of the economic value of housing. The housing needs of people who are homeless? People who can’t afford their housing? These are now also central to thinking about highest and best use.

That 50 year old apartment building is no longer an anchor dragging down its value. Now its value as a supply of affordable rental housing could mean that the current building should not be torn down. Its current use IS its highest and best use.

For municipal governments, the implications are far-reaching. The report linked below discusses the current regulations and legislation that hold local governments back from ending homelessness. It also gives examples of regulations and legislation that would enable communities to realize the right to affordable housing at a much faster pace. This includes being open about what governments are trying to do as well as monitoring and reporting on their progress.

The process used to create this report is also worth mentioning. It started with the the UN’s 16 Guidelines on the right to adequate housing. To make it relevant to local government, the researchers (Kaitlin Schwan and Julietta Perucca) interviewed experts in the right to adequate housing, including people with lived experience of homelessness.

As well, they drew on discussions among officials that were convened to discuss the role of local governments in implementing the right to adequate housing in Canada. Schwan and Perucca also reviewed academic and ‘grey’ literature1 about the role of local governments in implementing the right to affordable housing.

The report is specific to Canada, but includes examples from other countries. It is relevant for local communities with similar responsibilities. The methods used here will help local researchers to make recommendations that are relevant to local contexts. Meetings with local government officials are an effective way to begin introducing and implementing the right to adequate housing at a local level.

You can read the report at the National Right To Housing Network: Realizing The Right To Housing In Canadian Municipalities – Where Do We Go From Here?


  1. For a good discussion of grey literature, see this page at Simon Fraser University: Grey literature: What it is & how to find it