Still Renovating: A History of Canadian Social Housing Policy – NEW PUBLICATION

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Still Renovating: A History of Canadian Social Housing Policy

Social housing – public, non-profit, and co-operative – was once a part of Canada’s urban success story. Today there is new attention to affordable housing issues, and renewed optimism about federal policy.

Still Renovating tells the story of the rise and decline in Canada’s priority for social housing, from the mid-twentieth century to today. It focuses on six turning points and the forces that shaped policy at each of them. Federal decisions interacted with provincial ones, creating the resources that local communities and providers used.

This history is set in the context of shifting politics and attitudes, and changing economic and housing market conditions. This book draws on archival research and interviews to provide the first overall account of the largest turning points – expansion in the mid-1960s, and cutbacks and devolution in the 1990s. It retells the 1970s events that gave birth to community-based housing, and provides an overview of the post-2000 programs. Also included is a concise summary section, a description of programs of each period, and useful reference data.

“I doubt there is another publication on Canadian social housing policy that provides this level of detail on the policy shifts and the causes of these shifts over this sixty-plus-year period.”

Tom Carter, University of Winnipeg

“Suttor recognizes that many elements have gone into the making of social housing policy. Apart from the more obvious economic & political considerations, these include institutional inertia and the impact of key individuals. Complex and balanced, his account is thoroughly convincing.”

Richard Harris, McMaster University

Greg Suttor is a senior researcher at the Wellesley Institute in Toronto, and is a long-time housing policy advisor/researcher and CHRA member.

Q&A with CHRA and author Greg Suttor

CHRA: Why did you decide to write this book?

G. Suttor: Like many people in the sector or in related government roles, I knew some of this history and lived some of it first-hand in my work. But for many younger people today, there’s not much out there that provides an overall story. It also struck me that while a lot was written 20 to 40 years ago, once the policy priority declined there was also less research and reflection on these matters. There are a lot of studies on homelessness and local initiatives, but not much that looks at the broader picture.  So the risk for Canada is that we forget our own history and what is distinctive about it.  Plus, once you’re well into middle age it’s natural to reflect more on how life unfolded – and this is a parallel sort of thing.

CHRA: What does this book offer beyond existing accounts?

G. Suttor: Several things. There wasn’t an overall account covering all periods of social housing in Canada. If you look at the US or UK or Australia, it’s not hard to find broad overviews, so I hope this fills a gap in our case. Secondly, perhaps because people tend to view public housing negatively, there was no account of why this big priority suddenly emerged in the mid-1960s, so I’ve gone back and constructed that story. And while you can find various sources on cutbacks and devolution in the 1990s, and the post-2000 programs, again there is no overview. The last book-length account of Canadian housing policy was John Bacher’s Keeping to the Marketplace – and that predated devolution! More broadly, it’s not just saying here’s what happened in social housing. It’s connecting this in a systematic way to the evolving social safety net programs, and to Canadian urban development and housing markets conditions.

CHRA: What readers will be interested in this book?

G. Suttor: A few different sorts, I hope. It’s a serious but readable book, an analysis but also a narrative story. People in senior positions or policy-making roles in social housing will probably be interested in putting things in context and perspective. It can help young housing professionals to understand how things came about and therefore why they are the way they are. Post-secondary students and instructors may find it useful – and it does include a summary section and is available as an e-book. It also meets academic standards and applies relevant concepts that should be of interest to scholars in public policy studies, urban planning, social policy, and public administration.

CHRA: What do you think will be most helpful to people in the housing sector today?

G. Suttor: Well, it’s not a policy prescription or tips-for-advocates sort of book. But I think the 30-year heyday is a positive story, and a very Canadian story, both Anglophone and Francophone, and there may be some inspiration there. Although you can’t recreate the past, looking at other periods can help us remember that there are different possibilities, that the realities of Canada today are not the only possibilities.

CHRA: Is there something unexpected here, for people who know some of this history?

G. Suttor: Probably most people don’t realize how connected the public housing was with the Pearson government’s social policy agenda in the 1960s. The same politics that gave us universal health insurance and the Canada/Quebec pension plan gave us a big priority for social housing, and the shift to non-profit and co-op housing a decade later wouldn’t have been the same without that foundation. There’s some reinterpretation of how community-based non-profit and co-op housing emerged in the 1970s. The book also looks at particular people and their roles at key points – not just at broad forces. Some of the points from interviews will be interesting – people who shaped things at key turning points. 

Still Renovating: A History of Canadian Social Housing policy is available for purchase through McGill-Queen’s University Press. For more information Please visit: McGill-Queen’s University Press