Last week, members of CUPE’s National Executive Board and staff attended the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ annual conference and trade show in Quebec City. Our presence at FCM allowed us to have valuable conversations with some of the more than 2,000 mayors, councillors and other municipal officials attending from across Canada.

While at the conference, CUPE hosted a panel session titled, “Municipalities and the Affordable Housing Crisis.” The workshop was the only one on FCM’s program to address housing and was attended by close to 300 delegates. The session focused on key challenges to the affordable housing market and highlighted the ways that municipalities are working with provincial governments and the community non-profit sector to meet affordable housing needs and eliminate homelessness.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Vanessa Rosa, a professor from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, who grounded the discussion in key moments in the history of housing in Canada. The panelists, from three very different Canadian cities, discussed publicly funded solutions to affordable housing and underscored the need for collaboration and local leadership in our response to the affordable housing crisis and in building livable, prosperous communities.

The Honourable Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in British Columbia, described how the NDP provincial government is assisting small municipalities in BC to meet their affordable housing needs. The Minister spoke passionately about her government’s new housing efforts—20,000 new units completed or underway in nearly 80 communities—and spent time painting a very human picture of housing need, reminding delegates that while “housing unit” may be the technical term, we are talking about people and families.

David Wachsmuth, the Canada Research Chair in Urban Governance at McGill University, presented his research on how online short-term rentals (like Airbnb) act as stressors on the affordable housing market. Wachsmuth’s research finds that cities with the lowest rental vacancy rates tend to have the highest number of Airbnb listings, meaning municipalities are losing precious housing stock to the service’s largely commercial operators. Wachsmuth notes that Airbnb listings are rising dramatically across all communities, particularly in rural areas. “It’s specifically cities and municipalities that have had a lot of success in keeping rents low which are the most vulnerable, paradoxically, to this new attack on our housing supply in Canada.”

Lastly, delegates heard from Bruce Pearce, a former community development worker and affordable housing activist from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Pearce spoke to delegates about the work of community-led group End Homelessness St. John’s, and shared how the City of St. John’s has integrated the goal of eliminating homelessness into its affordable housing mandate through a partnership with the community non-profit sector.

The subjects raised by this panel discussion, and the numerous conversations the session generated over the course of the FCM meeting, are particularly relevant for CUPE members. Many of our members work directly in the provision of social housing, and many more work in supported housing for those at risk of homelessness and in the delivery of housing support services, such as mental health supports and employment counselling.

“The municipal sector is one of CUPE’s largest sectors, with nearly 150,000 members, over 1,100 bargaining units, and thousands of job classifications,” said CUPE National President Mark Hancock during his opening remarks. “CUPE members know that access to affordable housing is a significant challenge in many communities across this country. As front-line public service workers, we know that public services play an important role in ensuring everyone in our communities can live a safe, healthy, and productive life.”

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