The housing crisis in Canada is constantly in the headlines: exorbitant prices, combined with high levels of inflation and household debt, are a recipe for disaster. Inflation also has an impact on food prices, and as wages remain stagnant, food insecurity appears to be on the rise.

Although housing affordability and food insecurity are often discussed, we rarely hear if and how they are linked.

One of us (Charlotte) was recently part of a team that conducted a review of research exploring the “link between housing and food insecurity” in Canada. He asked if looking at housing and food together could provide more comprehensive solutions than just building more housing or increasing food supplies for charities.

The “housing-food insecurity nexus”

The team reviewed research examining the relationships between housing and food insecurity between 2000 and 2020. This defined the link between housing and food insecurity as the “co-occurrence of food insecurity and housing, often resulting from unaffordable housing costs (and the relative flexibility of food insecurity). spending) in the context of neoliberal housing policy and market conditions where the cost of living exceeds income for many.

We found that due to the fixed pressure of housing costs and the relative flexibility of food expenditures, many low-income people choose to go hungry rather than risk eviction.

This follows cuts to off-market housing finance, the prioritization of homeownership over renters, financialization and incomes that are not enough to cover the basic cost of living.

And while access to decent housing and food are basic human rights and key social determinants of health, they are more often defined and treated as commodities.

Demographic risk factors

Throughout our review, we found research that consistently identified particular groups as being more vulnerable to both housing and food insecurity. These include renters, people living with disabilities or HIV, youth, students, women — especially single mothers — and racialized people.

A 2016 study in Vancouver showed that 64% of homeless people suffered from food insecurity. Negative health outcomes were compounded by mental health issues, substance abuse, and risky behaviors to acquire food.

Homes are currently selling for well above list price.

Demographic risk factors as well as marginalization often overlap and intersect, compounding the problems.

Some researchers describe this as “multiple material need insecurities” that combine with societal stigma to produce variable experiences and vulnerability to the link between housing and food insecurity.

While disadvantages related to gender, race, sexuality and other social categories accumulate over the course of life. Housing and food insecurity often manifests among the elderly, despite the protections of universal pension payments. This is a time when individuals are least able to participate in the labor market and navigate welfare and restoration services, but remain ignored by policy makers and service providers.

But are there solutions to the link between housing and food insecurity?

Short, medium and long term solutions

In the short term, community initiatives can combine food and shelter provision. They can facilitate food cropping or spatial access to affordable food in temporary or social housing. For example, FoodShare Toronto partners with housing agencies to provide healthy, affordable food to low-income neighborhoods.

And in the medium term, better efforts can be made to tackle the cross-political drivers of the link between housing and food insecurity through more collaborative governance. For example, a study in Peterborough, Ontario, suggested how different levels of government can work together with housing providers, activists, researchers and community members to develop policy that together targets housing and food. .

This can happen through food access planning in affordable housing developments (or, as in this trial in Vancouver, in rapid housing initiatives that attempt to move homeless people into permanent housing). Even within transitional and subsidized housing services, food and housing supports often fail to meet the diverse needs of residents, especially those who are most vulnerable.

In the long term, preventing the link between housing and food insecurity requires more fundamental changes in the way basic needs, such as housing and food, are defined (as rights rather than commodities) and provided, targeting both revenue and supply.

People line up for a pop-up food bank
Emergency housing and food often fail to meet the needs of diverse people in vulnerable situations.

This first involves tackling the low level of wealth and insufficient income that leaves people unable to meet all of their basic needs. Benefits must cover rising rental costs, and housing costs cannot exceed 30% of income, as some food banks advocate.

Moreover, policy can target supply-side proposals that may decommodify housing, shielding it from the financialization that helps fuel housing insecurity. Universal basic services, a policy concept originating in the UK, suggests that rather than targeting income alone, policies should ensure that everyone can access basic needs, from housing to food, according not to their ability to pay, but of our shared universal need.

Although the pandemic has triggered historic federal, provincial and municipal reinvestments in social programs (including affordable housing), it remains to be seen if these interventions will reach the most vulnerable and if they will truly reverse a long-standing political climate. of austerity.

Political will is the key ingredient to ensure that safe housing and good food are guaranteed for all.

Marit Rosol of the University of Calgary is co-author of the report on the link between housing and food insecurity.