The National Housing Strategy’s commitment is to remove 530 000 households from housing need over the next decade.
We explored the potential of housing waitlists to provide information on housing need in Canada, including:
- The number of households on waitlists for social and affordable housing;
- Time spent on waiting lists; and,
- Change in waitlist numbers over time.
In comparison to Australia and other countries
Some countries report on the demand for social and affordable housing nationally. They do this by using a combination of administrative waitlist data and survey data from housing providers. Canada is currently without a process for establishing a similar national picture.
The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare reports on the number of waitlist applications received annually. They include the applicants’ length of waiting time and their level of housing need. This is included with information from previous years and broader trends in national population growth and house prices in major cities.
If Australia is able to provide this information by looking at waitlist data nationally, why can’t Canada do the same?
The answer to this question is complex and rooted in how waitlists in Canada have been established and maintained. In many provinces and territories, provincial or territorial housing departments manage waiting lists. In other jurisdictions, waiting lists are managed by municipal or community-based organizations as is the case in Ontario. Moreover, where some jurisdictions have centralized waiting lists for social and affordable housing; others may have many lists, including those managed by individual housing providers.
The rules and regulations that guide waitlist administration processes also vary across provinces and territories. This variation results in data that is not equivalent across lists or across jurisdictions.
Here is a tangible example
A household that is already living in social or affordable housing requests to transfer to a different unit. Generally, a unit that is larger and can accommodate a growing family.
Here’s where the waitlist processes vary:
- some require this household to re-apply to the waitlist and would track these types of transfers
- ·others would not require a household already in social housing to re-apply
Inconsistent terminology across waitlists is another issue that makes data aggregation difficult.
Another example is that it is common for waitlists to identify seniors as a household type. The age at which individuals are classified seniors varies. Some rank seniors as 55 and older and other lists rank from 65 and older.
It is a challenge to interpret and compare data when there are inconsistent collection, record and categorization processes. The reason for these inconsistencies is that waitlist processes are not designed to be aggregated or compared across organizations or communities.
Waitlists are designed primarily as tools to match households in housing need with available housing in their community. Waitlist data can be examined in combination with local data collected through other methods such as homelessness counts to assess the extent of housing need or determine what type of housing is required. The Calgary Housing Needs Assessment is an example of how a city can draw upon waitlist data in combination with other local data to report upon housing needs.
Efforts to establish a national picture of housing need will also require data from multiple sources, including national surveys such as the census.
The Canadian Household Survey
The Canadian Household Survey launched in 2018. The survey collects information about the housing needs and experiences of Canadian households.
In a section on waitlists for social and affordable housing, the survey includes questions about:
- whether household members are on at least one waitlist
- how many members are on a waitlist
- the length of time the household has been on a list
An early release from the 2018 survey data indicates that 283,800 households in Canada have at least one member who is on a waitlist for social and affordable housing. More than 60% of these households have been on a waitlist for two years or more and 20% were already living in a subsidized dwelling.
The Canadian Household Survey is administered every two years. In time it will be possible to assess trends related to the number of households on waitlists in Canada and the length of time they spend waiting for housing.
The data gathered through the survey may provide a piece of the puzzle for tracking progress towards the goal of removing 530 000 households from housing need. Responses related to waitlists from the survey can be analyzed alongside other sources of information to establish a national picture of housing need in Canada and assess trends over time.