“Affordable income housing” has different meanings. It depends on who is using the phrase and when. The meaning changes with the political mood and the willingness (or ability) of governments to raise money to pay for decent housing for all of our citizens by using direct taxation, tax breaks, forgivable loans, selling bonds or by borrowing the money.

Income based measurements
In the good old days, when Canadians believed that raising prosperity was a given and that Canadian residence in itself bestowed on us the right to expect unending social spending, affordable good quality housing was seen as a basic right for all Canadians.

Back then, affordable housing was defined by what percentage of a household income was spent on housing. It was generally accepted that Canadians should not need to spent any more than 25-30% of their total household income to pay for decent housing.

Core Housing Need
Affordable housing used a CMHC measure called Core Housing Need. This indicator consists of:
• is it in good repair,
• suitability (housing size relative to family size), and
• affordability, the housing costing less than 30% of household income.

The definition changed
The definition of affordable housing changed starting in the late 1990's when the Mike Harris Conservatives were in power in Ontario. Affordable housing definitions became market-based rather than needs-based. Household income was lost as a reference point in the definition of affordability.

Between 1996 and 2000 new government spending for affordable housing ended. Moderate spending returned in 2001 as the Affordable Housing Program (AHP).

Shallow needs
AHP and successor programs define affordable housing as housing costing 80% of average market price or below. This definition is adequate for those with an ability to pay rent that falls just below the market range (shallow need).

Deep needs
The people with very low incomes and a very low ability to pay are those with deep needs. Affordable housing no longer addresses their needs.

How should Affordable Housing be defined?
This is a political and social question. It is generally agreed that affordable housing should close the gap between a household’s ability to pay for adequate and suitable housing and the current market prices.

Everything depends on whether affordable housing is a big phrase that includes all low-income residents of Ontario or if it is a much smaller phrase that excludes the lowest-income residents.

Today's definition
It appears that when the politicians, city planners, social service providers are talking about including affordable housing in new condominium projects, they are referring only to the cream of lower-income residents; the ones that have shallow needs.

That is today. However, tomorrow the term "affordable housing" may, once again, mean something different.

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