Budget 2023: A Profound Miss for the Right to Housing

March 31, 2023

In this time of economic instability and rampant unaffordability, Budget 2023 ignores the federal government’s legal duty to uphold the right to adequate housing for over 1.7 million people facing deep housing precarity and homelessness every day.

By Sahar Raza and Jessica Tan

We at the National Right to Housing Network are disappointed with this year’s federal budget, which makes no structural progress towards making sure everyone has a decent place to live, preventing homelessness, or reaching the government’s own National Housing Strategy goals of a) lifting 530,000 households out of housing need by 2028, and b) ending chronic homelessness by 2030. This is especially baffling given that it was this same federal government that legislated the human right to adequate housing almost four years ago via the historic National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA).

It’s no secret that Canada is facing a cost-of-living crisis and imminent recession. But at a time of economic instability, a feminist and human rights-based government must prioritize its duty to its most vulnerable, including the over 1.7 million people facing deep housing precarity and homelessness every day.

Human rights are not policy options—they’re legal obligations, and an approach to governance. They demand that our governments utilize all available resources to ensure that all people have access to adequate, affordable, and secure housing that meets their needs. Yet our once-progressive government is slapping band-aid solutions on growing housing precarity while prioritizing private-sector investments.

While there were some positive measures on other fronts, the budget mentions homelessness only 3 times and mostly re-announces past measures on the housing front. It thus fails to meaningfully address the structural housing barriers facing precariously housed tenants, who are disproportionately single mothers, women, gender-diverse people, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, refugees, youth, international students, and other under-resourced communities that fuel our economy.

In this budget, it’s clear that the government’s plan for addressing our broken housing system is to maintain the status quo, which means continuing to incentivize for-profit investors and developers who drive up the cost of housing, while leaving marginalized populations who can’t reach the “Canadian dream” of homeownership out in the cold—sometimes, quite literally, given that homelessness is rising across the country.

This neglect is an overt violation of Canada’s legislated commitment to progressively realize the basic human right to adequate housing for all. Yet, like last year, there was no acknowledgement of this human right in Budget 2023.

No Action on Regulating Large Corporate Investors

In Budget 2023, there is no follow-up on taxing and reigning in Real Estate Investment Trusts and large corporate landlords, despite the government’s 2022 announcement to “study” the role of large corporate players in the market and their impact on renters and homeowners.

Budget 2023 itself even states: “while large corporate investors own a significant share of Canada’s rental units… too many Canadians have experienced excessive renovictions, above-guideline rent increases, and other actions that have made rent more expensive. More needs to be done to ensure these homes are affordable for Canadians.” Yet it provides no concrete measures to address these ongoing issues.

As we discussed in last year’s budget analysis, this lack of action in tackling predatory landlords and profit-driven speculation and investment violates the right to adequate housing. In fact, these practices of treating rental housing as a commodity to generate wealth at the expense of human rights among tenants and tenancy-seeking individuals is known as the “financialization” of housing, and is the subject of Canada’s first ever human rights-based open hearing, or “review panel,” under Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has told us that: “[t]he State must regulate, direct and engage with private market and financial actors, not simply to ensure that they do not explicitly violate rights, but also to ensure that the rules under which they operate and their actions are consistent with the realization of the right to adequate housing.”

To this end, some concrete measures the government could take to address financialization and prevent the hemorrhage of Canada’s dwindling affordable housing stock include: taxing and regulating for-profit, private market investors and large corporate landlords; reallocating these tax revenues to create and maintain deeply affordable and non-market housing (through an acquisition program, among other avenues); and working with other levels of government to implement strong tenant protections like rent and vacancy controls.

Moreover, the federal government must set bold and clear targets and timelines regarding the regulation of private investment and speculation in the housing market, in alignment with the NHSA.

With the severity of the housing and homelessness disaster raging across Canada today, having no policy is a policy.

The Human Rights Gap in the National Housing Strategy

The National Housing Strategy (NHS), launched in 2017, is the federal government’s 10-year plan and central housing and homelessness strategy used to address the housing needs for people all across Canada. Yet the NHS has not been revised to include a human rights-based lens, with relevant targets, timelines, and monitoring mechanisms—even after Canada’s right to housing legislation, the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA, or NHS Act), became law in 2019.

In fact, the federal government itself states that: “The NHS Act requires the Government to develop and maintain a national housing strategy. The strategy needs to take into account key principles of a human rights-based approach to housing. This includes the principles of non-discrimination, inclusion, participation and accountability.”

Moreover, the federal government has legal obligations under the NHSA and international law to prioritize those in most severe housing need and homelessness throughout all budgetary and policy decisions, and to allocate the “maximum of available resources” and “all appropriate means” to realizing their right to housing as quickly as possible.

And yet, Budget 2023 makes no progress to this end.

It’s clear that the National Housing Strategy needs to be revised urgently to include a stronger human rights-based approach, as legislated under the NHSA. This means, among other measures, imposing strong affordability criteria and tenant protections across all policies and programs, and allocating a significant amount of these Strategy funds towards non-market housing—because public funds should go towards public good.

In terms of improving accountability, it will also be important for Canada to, among other measures, track and publish the impact of government housing investments on marginalized populations, to make sure our policies are actually meeting those in greatest need (using tools like HART’s needs assessment). This aligns with recent critiques expressed by the Auditor General of Canada, who found that the “Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation [who administer the NHS] did not know who was benefiting from its initiatives.”

A Critical Need for More Non-Market Housing 

Meanwhile, Canada continues to suffer from a significant deficit in public, non-market, and affordable housing, with our current stock at or below 4% of all housing, which is less than half of comparable OECD countries.

Experts across the housing, homelessness, and human rights sectors have been saying for years that Canada needs to more than double its non-market housing stock to meet the needs of our population—a call to action recently echoed by Scotiabank.

Yet the only measure Budget 2023 takes on this front is to transfer funds from the repair stream to the new builds stream in the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, thus putting existing affordable housing stock at risk.

Moreover, non-profit housing providers using this Fund are struggling to get their projects off the ground, meaning that even this shuffling of funds won’t do much to increase net non-market housing stock. As the Canada Housing and Renewal Association stated in their budget analysis: “Many affordable housing projects rely on the National Housing Strategy’s National Housing Co-Investment Fund (NHCF). Over the last year, rising interest rates and construction costs, coupled with a dramatic decrease in grant dollars available through NHCF has made it much more difficult, and in some cases impossible to create affordable housing using this National Housing Strategy program. An injection of $4 billion per year is required to allow NHCF to remain viable in the current economic environment.”

Sorely missing in this area of the budget was also a housing acquisition program to enable non-market housing providers to acquire existing properties and make or keep them affordable—a critical step towards increasing Canada’s affordable and non-market housing.

No Funding for Access to Justice

There also continues to be a vacuum of funding for rights-based participation, specifically to support civil society in putting forward systemic claims to the Federal Housing Advocate or engaging with review panels—both critical human rights accountability mechanisms under the NHSA.

Supporting rights claimants and civil society to engage with NHSA mechanisms is an integral part of the human rights-based approach under international and domestic law. As the UN Special Rapporteur wrote on access to justice, support should be available for both individuals and groups (such as people with lived experience of homelessness, non-profits organizations, grassroots groups, etc.) to participate in all stages of rights claims and in the implementation of remedies, especially if they have expertise in the systemic issues being addressed.

At its core, the NHSA operates as an access to justice system, to overcome the practical and procedural barriers that rights claimants have faced for decades when seeking justice for right to housing violations through Canadian courts. And with Canada’s first review panel on the topic financialization coming up this year, funding and resources for civil society and individuals to adequately engage with the NHSA’s mechanisms are needed now more than ever.

Some Progress on Urban, Rural, Northern Indigenous Housing

Budget 2023 makes a welcomed new investment in Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing, however its $4 billion investment over seven years is a far cry from the estimated $56 billion over 10 years that Canada’s own National Housing Council recommended.

Moreover, the funding will be delivered by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) instead of Indigenous organizations—a critical gap in the context of Indigenous rights to self-determination under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which, like the right to housing, has been legislated in Canada under the UNDRIP Act.

Currently, Indigenous peoples are disproportionately represented in Canada’s shelters and homelessness populations with 31% of shelter users identifying as Indigenous even though only 5% of the total population identifies as Indigenous, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s 2021 report.

The 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also revealed that a lack of safe and affordable housing poses a barrier to fleeing unsafe situations and increases risks of violence and harm for Indigenous women.

If Canada is to truly address its legacy of colonialism and systemic housing inequity for Indigenous peoples, it must start by supporting the implementation of adequately funded for-Indigenous, by-Indigenous urban, rural, and northern Indigenous housing strategies. In the meantime, it should also target existing funds in National Housing Strategy (NHS) programs towards the construction of permanent housing and related supports for Indigenous peoples.

Small Wins

The right to adequate housing also considers other elements of housing adequacy, including access to necessary services and facilities, education, employment, healthcare, infrastructure, and more.

In this regard, we saw some positive measures in Budget 2023. The headlining dental care program for households with incomes under $90,000 per year will certainly improve access to healthcare for many.

The grocery rebate offering a few hundred dollars to extremely low-income individuals and families via a one-time GST credit is also a much-needed income support, though the broader issues of grocery price inflation will require meaningful regulation of the grocery corporations and profiteers.

An automatic tax filing service is also an important measure to ensure that low-income and unhoused people can access the existing government benefits that they’re entitled to, while new restrictions on predatory lenders will benefit people living in poverty.

Meanwhile, the Court Challenges Program saw its funding doubled over the next five years to provide support for legal human rights cases of “national significance”—an important form of access to justice through the courts. The $160M in funding to organizations that serve women is also welcome, though it falls short of the capacity-building funding that feminist organizations had called for.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, Canada’s federal budget seriously falls short in advancing the human right to adequate housing and ending homelessness. While there are some positive measures on other issues, Budget 2023 does not address rising homelessness, housing precarity, and rapid losses in affordable and non-market housing stock.

Non-profit developers are struggling to create affordable housing in this economy and are seeing no tangible supports in terms of an acquisition program or interest rate subsidies.

Meanwhile, the government’s measures to offer tax incentives to for-profit corporate developers and landlords, as well as prospective homebuyers, are contributing to systemic housing unaffordability issues. For example, tax incentives for first-time homebuyers to save and then spend even more on rising homeownership costs only contribute to inflation, thus driving up the cost of living even further.

Homelessness and housing inadequacy are worsening, and the Canadian government has yet to meaningfully implement rights-based housing and homelessness standards throughout its flagship National Housing Strategy.

It’s beyond time for the government to meaningfully acknowledge and implement housing as a fundamental human right throughout its budgetary and policy decisions. Partners across our Network have already given the federal government solutions that will begin to rebalance the housing market in support of housing affordability, security, and adequacy for all—and many would cost nothing but political will.

But sadly, we did not see these solutions reflected in this federal budget.

 “The community housing sector has solutions for the housing crisis and are standing ready to work with the Government of Canada to ensure everyone has a place to call home. To do so, we need the government to equip our sector with opportunities to help, including through capital funding and program co-design.

– Ray Sullivan, Executive Director, Canada Housing and Renewal Association

For more budget analysis, check out these statements from some of our Network partners: 


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