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The Urban Millennium: Prioritizing Safe and Affordable Housing

For the first time in human history, more people live in urban settings than in rural ones. Global housing needs are growing at a faster rate than everyone can be accommodated, which is why Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 recommends making cities and human settlements more inclusive, sustainable and safe for all residing in them.

The new “urban millennium” is considered to have begun in 2008, when the shift to a mass urban population was officially recorded. Urban sprawl is showing no signs of slowing down, with 73 million people around the world moving to cities annually. Two-thirds of the global population will live in metropolitan areas by 2050.

Coincidentally, 70 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product comes from cities, meaning that the majority of economic activity and opportunities are found there. The growing economic need for people to live in urban centres makes SDG 11 one that will truly impact what our future looks like.

Research on global housing affordability shows that most people live in unaffordable or unsuitable conditions. According to the United Nations (UN), 1.6 billion people across the world live in inadequate housing, of which a billion live in slums. UN research has shown that the majority of the global population has been living in unaffordable housing in the last 20 years. Housing demand continues to increase, as do prices, while the availability of decent, affordable housing has decreased.

The need for reliable housing policies is becoming a top priority as it is linked with a variety of other issues, including climate change, mobility and energy consumption. It also directly or indirectly affects most of the other SDGs, including 1 (no poverty), 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 9 (industry innovation and infrastructure), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 15 (life on land) and 17 (partnerships for the goals).

It is becoming increasingly clear that SDG 11 should be a key focus for achieving adequate socioeconomic development and a suitable quality of life for the global population.

“The New Urban Agenda calls for placing housing policies at the centre of national urban policies along with strategies to fight poverty [and] improve health and employment”, said Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme.

In Toronto, a major Canadian metropolis, homelessness is becoming an issue in need of dire action. According to data from Homeless Hub, it is estimated that 7,347 people were experiencing homelessness in Toronto in 2021. Of this, 27 per cent experienced it chronically for more than six months at a time. During that same year, the apartment vacancy rate was 4.5 per cent, pointing to the extreme limitations that many Torontonians face when trying to secure affordable and adequate housing arrangements.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, housing is considered affordable if it accounts for 30 per cent of one’s pre-taxed income. Those who spend over 30 per cent of their income on housing are deemed to be in ‘core housing need’. Those who spend 50 per cent or more on their monthly housing costs are considered to be in ‘severe housing need’.

According to Statistics Canada, the highest rates of core housing needs are in Canada’s primary downtowns. In 2021, one in ten Canadian households was living in ‘core housing need’, 20 per cent of which were renters. The province with the highest percentage of core housing need is Nunavut, with 32.9 per cent of people there spending over 30 per cent of their income on housing. The second was British Columbia, at 13.4 per cent. In Ontario, 12.1 per cent of residents were in core housing need in 2021.

The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto in 2023 is around CAD 2,500. This means that to live affordably as a single person in Toronto, an annual income of about CAD 100,000 is required.

Like the UN SDGs, the Canadian government’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) for the period 2022–2026 has 17 key goals. Goal 11 is to “improve access to affordable housing, clean air, transportation, parks and green spaces, as well as cultural heritage in Canada” by 2030.

The goal is to ensure access to safe and affordable housing for everyone. Thus, the National Housing Strategy was established in 2017. By Canadian standards, making a community sustainable means having adequate and affordable access to housing, public parks and green spaces, and transportation.

The national approach to SDG 11 includes creating a new supply of housing and modernizing and renovating existing housing, as outlined in the National Housing Strategy. On a local level, efforts are being made to create housing developments near transit and public services so that housing is more accessible. Social housing initiatives such as rent-to-own options and housing co-ops are also being examined and implemented.

Research has shown that communities and neighbourhoods are safer when social inclusion improves. This means giving everyone an equal opportunity to access basic needs—housing is a major one.

“Ensuring housing affordability is, therefore, a complex issue of strategic importance for development, social peace and equality”, Dr. Clos added.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha


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