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Jul 2018 | The Housing Issue

THE ‘OTHER’ DIMENSION: CONSIDERING QUALITY IN THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING CONVERSATION
SLOANE SWEAZEY, PSD RESEARCH

By no means should the cosmetic appearance of affordable housing be the first priority of policy makers, or the second, or the third. And rightly so; the housing situation in Canada is quite grim and we cannot even begin to consider the quality of a building that isn’t even there. But if lifting individuals out of poverty – or preventing individuals from homelessness as discussed by Erin Dej and John Ecker prior in this issue – are the fundamental goals of affordable housing, solutions ought to have systemic considerations. The causes of homelessness are very much engrained into individuals’ lives and society at large. Likewise, solutions to housing accessibility cannot be functionally singular either. One of the most ill-considered dimensions of affordable housing is quality. Despite the lack of attention given to quality housing conditions, it has a significant impact on the wellbeing of individuals, and subsequently their ability to be lifted out of a systemic cycle of poverty and social exclusion. 

I. Beyond Affordability: The Dimension of Quality

As Robyn Gravell alluded to in her article, it is not just about putting a roof over one’s head. Beyond access to affordable housing, there are two other dimensions of housing that are important for the wellbeing of individuals: quality (of the dwelling and neighbourhood); and stability and security (although equally important to the first two dimensions, stability and security is beyond the scope of this article).[1]

Given the lack of affordable housing in Canada, the most pressing issue at hand is increasing the availability of affordable housing. The preceding articles in this issue have illuminated how dire the lack of affordable housing is in the country. But, looking forward – and hopefully as affordable housing units are being built – the quality of affordable housing ought to be considered as well. Such a consideration has been explored in Australia.

“In recent years, policy debates and research about housing in Australia have broadened beyond consideration of shelter outcomes such as affordability, appropriateness and adequacy, although these remain critically important, to investigation of a range of potential ‘non-shelter’ outcomes thought to be related to the housing circumstances of households. These include emotional wellbeing, family functioning, educational attainment, participation in paid employment, physical and mental health, and community life.”[2]

Indeed, quality affordable housing is important for combatting a number of systemic issues associated with low-income individuals including equality of opportunity and social inclusion.”[3]

In the report Housing and Health: Unlocking Opportunity (2016), the City of Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health reported that Toronto has one of the least affordable housing markets in Canada (this still rings true today).[4] In effect, low income households are being pushed out of the downtown core to the peripheries of the City to seek out more affordable housing.[5] The availability of affordable housing being limited to the outskirts of urban areas is quite problematic given that most social services are in the heart of urban areas. When low-income individuals are forced to seek affordable housing options at the outskirts of city lines or possibly in rural areas, their access to social services and employment becomes limited, contributing to the systemic cycle of poverty.

 

II. “What is this going to cost me as a taxpayer?”

 

The biggest contention surrounding affordable housing is funding, a debate even more controversial when the conversation is shifted to investing in the quality of affordable housing units. But if you think that the quality of affordable housing ought not to be a priority, then think twice. As discussed by Anne Marie Shaw earlier in this issue, worrying about affordability and stability can take a toll on one’s health. More specifically, research shows that having quality housing conditions – not just access to and security of affordable housing – improves wellbeing, and this is especially true in regard to mental and physical health.[6]

Interventions such as green building interventions that consider health and environmental quality goals have been proven to reduce health risks, improve health, and reduce health care utilization.[7] Furthermore, homes in poor condition lead to an increased risk of illnesses including stress,[8] depression,[9] and respiratory illnesses. Therefore, if the quality of affordable housing is invested in, physical and mental health illnesses can be avoided, thereby resulting in significant healthcare cost savings.[10]   

To provide a City of Toronto example, in a 2015 report by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (THCH), it was predicted that without adequate funding to repair poor housing conditions, 90 percent of its units will be in poor or critical condition or have to be closed for being in an unsafe state of repair.[11] In effect, a predicted 1.1 million additional health care visits and $1.55 billion in health care costs over the next 30 years will result.

 

“The quality of homes may have to take a backseat when the conversation is simplified down to placing a roof over one’s head… However, once we transition beyond a crisis of shelter, it is adamant that we all focus our attention to quality affordable housing…”

 

III. Case Study - Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing

 

Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing (hereafter, Design New York) is part of the Housing New York 2.0 Plan that seeks to build and finance 300,000 affordable homes by 2026. The initiative’s mission is quite unique in the affordable housing realm: “New York City hopes to see more affordable housing developments that are rooted in their respective communities and feature exemplary architecture.”[12] Designing New York is a city-wide collaboration, with stakeholders including New York City Public Design Commission, The Fine Arts Federation of New York, the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, Department of City Planning, Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Design and Construction, and the Economic Development Corporation. 

Specifically, when speaking of “quality”, Designing New York provides design guidelines to vendors bidding for affordable housing developments that encompasses eight design categories: planning, massing, materiality, façade, windows and doors, ground floor condition, circulation, and open space design. “Ultimately, well-designed housing can contribute to a more equitable city, where all residents live in safe and dignified homes and neighborhoods.”[13] Without question, municipalities’ hands are tied quite tightly in the housing policy sphere. However, in addition to zoning laws, design guidelines like New York City created can be a way of integrating the dimension of quality into a community’s affordable housing strategy of enhancing the wellbeing of those most in need in the community.

Beyond residents’ wellbeing, quality affordable housing can offer value to a neighbourhood. Another contentious issue surrounding affordable housing is where it is located. Often there is resistance to where affordable housing is placed within a municipality, as Noel Walker pointed out in his article. A consistent factor associated with this contention is the cosmetic appearance of social housing units. Designing New York recognized this and subsequently constructed their design guidelines to consider New York’s diverse set of neighborhood contexts and to design units accordingly. “Housing not only can transform residents’ lives, but also forms the building blocks for vibrant, diverse neighbourhoods.”[14]

 

IV. Conclusion

 

It is obvious that the lack of affordable housing in Canada is of utmost concern. Sarah Woodgate notes that the City of Calgary is simply trying to meet the affordable housing demand – a feat of 15,000 new homes. The quality of homes may have to take a backseat when the conversation is simplified down to placing a roof over one’s head. I do not disagree with this approach for it is a smug reality the country is facing. However, once we transition beyond a crisis of shelter, it is adamant that we all focus our attention to quality affordable housing to ensure that we all live in a home that is not destructive to our wellbeing: it’s favourable to our pocket books and the social progress of the country, and it’s what Canadians deserve.

 

SLOANE SWEAZEY, MA is a Junior Editor for the Public Sector Digest. She completed her master’s degree in Political Science, specializing in Public Policy and Administration, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and International Development, both from the University of Guelph. Sloane’s research interests surround municipal governance and public policy, where she has researched community-engagement initiatives and child care policy at length. In her role, Sloane researches and writes articles for publication, while also sourcing content from external contributors. She can be reached at ssweazey [at] publicsectordigest [dot] com.

 

[6] 9 Thomson, H., Thomas, S., Sellstrom, E., & Petticrew, M. (2013). Housing improvements for health and associated socioeconomic outcomes. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD008657. DOI: 10.1002/1461858.CD008657.pub2.
[7] Allen, J. G., MacNaughton, P., Laurent, J. G. C., Flanigan, S. S., Eitland, E. S., & Spengler, J. D. (2015). Green buildings and health. Current Environmental Health Reports, 2(3), 250–258.
[8] Hopton, J., & Hunt, S. (1996). Housing conditions and mental health in a disadvantaged area in Scotland. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 50, 56-61.
[9] Shenassa, D. E., Daskalakis, C., Liebhaber, A., & Braubach, B. (2007). Dampness and Mold in the Home and Depression: An Examination of Mold-Related Illness and Perceived Control of One's Home as Possible Depression Pathways. October.
[11] Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis. (2015). Socio-economic analysis: Value of Toronto Community Housing’s 10-year capital investment plan and revitalization. Staff report for action on Housing and Health: Unlocking Opportunity 18 Retrieved from http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2015/ah/bgrd/backgroundfile79525.pdf.