Though we didn't realize it at the time, all of us on Oakridge Drive in Scarborough, where I grew up, were participating in Canada's most unusual social policy experiment - one worth parsing in this era when land speculators, real estate interests, builders and bankers are the controlling voices in housing policy.
Back my childhood, all the dads on my block were World War II veterans who hadn't gone far enough in high school to take advantage of the main program for returning veterans: free university education. Instead, through the Veterans' Land Act, they got half an acre of suburban land for $200, enough to build a home on and still have space left over to grow food when the inevitable postwar depression came.
Everyone on the street pitched in to dig out one another's basements, and then moved into their structures when the first semblance of a roof was overhead.
My dad built our house by carrying bricks home on the bus at the end of his workday. He got the plan for the house out of a magazine, and to this day if you look up and down the block you can see that each dwelling is unique no cookie-cutter development here.
When I left home to go out on my own some 18 years later, still referring to most of the other moms and dads on the street as uncles and aunts, most of the houses were still being finished. This government program combined four unusual features. First, it gave actual capital resources to people and enabled them (that was before the era when governments talked about enabling but gave no resources) to leverage their own sweat equity. This had been been done earlier with the homestead acts that peopled the countryside with hardworking pioneer farmers.
Secondly, typical of a time when another economic depression was expected around the corner, the program provided a way for ordinary people to build a good life for themselves by using self-reliance skills to keep their cost of living low. This hand up wasn't angled, as became the norm later, at pushing recipients to get a job and income rather than practise frugality and self-provisioning to get the good things of life.
The program, thirdly, combined a way to address two essential needs, food and shelter, at once. And fourth, since no officials ever came around to police what happened and no subsidy to builders was ever needed, it barely cost the government a dime.
Only after World War II? Pity. The experiment was never extended or repeated. In the "welfare state" that emerged later, during the 1950s and 60s, pensions, unemployment insurance and health insurance were vastly improved. Governments moved to schemes that insured personal security against the random ups and downs of life in an impersonal and industrial society where old age, unemployment and illness are beyond any one person's control.
But the new focus shifted effort away from providing security through direct control over the means for producing essentials of survival outside of the marketplace.
That shift enjoyed support from both left and right, despite noisy but relatively superficial debates about how generous the terms of income support should be or how they should be financed.
More surprisingly, there's been no subsequent effort to provide the two physical essentials of life, food and shelter, together which is why we have a number of people agonizing at the end of every month about whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.
What's very clear from the data is that we don't have a poverty/hunger problem in Toronto; we have a housing crisis. It's the high cost of housing, not the high cost of food, that puts nutrition and a healthful standard of living beyond the reach of people on limited incomes.
In Europe, governments are more likely to support affordable housing but let food costs rise so that quality, the environment and local farmers are protected. Thus, 40 per cent of all housing in the Netherlands is social housing, 22 per cent in the UK and 14 per cent in Germany, compared to Canada's 2 per cent.
Instead, our policymakers have devoted money and energy to keeping housing expensive, limiting options for people on low incomes. This point is made in excruciating detail in John Bacher's brilliant historical study Keeping To The Marketplace: The Evolution Of Canadian Housing Policy, where he exposes government's tenacious will to treat the right to shelter as a business.
If pols wanted to increase access to affordable housing, there are any number of low-cost things they could do: abolish laws restricting in-house "basement apartments," provide tax incentives instead of tax penalties to homeowners who rent in-home units, require all box stores and strip malls to provide at least one floor of overhead apartments.
But why stop there? Employees could be encouraged to take a one-year leave of absence to build or subcontract building of their own homes, thereby saving more money than they could ever earn in a year. Self-built homes from straw-bale or other durable eco-materials are the new wave. Even in the pricey city, there's a huge potential for this in infill, and for the conversion of garages to granny flats.
Governments could impose a special tax on land speculators to finance long-term and low-interest loans to co-op housing ventures. But on almost every count, governments do the opposite, a measure of the power of builders, bankers and real estate interests.
It's cheap food that's encouraged here as the invisible social policy boosting the purchasing power of working and middle-income people, not affordable housing.
If we ever put food, shelter and self-reliance, not just income or savings protection, back into social policy, we could connect some dots in unusual ways. One can only imagine the social, eco and health benefits of letting food find its own price and many new growers, both urban and rural if housing were abundant and affordable, as was the case during the 1950s when housing cost a quarter of one earner's income, and food almost the same.
We would have to start by revising current policy aims. Right now, we don't have a "welfare state," as advertised, but a social insurance state, as your personal Social Insurance number tells you.
That's why most of what are falsely called government benefits workers' compensation, employment insurance, the Canada Pension Plan and so on are paid for out of payroll deductions, not taxes. It's a nice spin to call them government benefits, but the only thing the government does is enforce the payroll deduction.
Since housing and food can't be pooled in an insurance scheme and covered by payroll deductions, people are on their own. Governments spend billions to build roads and nuclear power plants, but relatively little, other than for seniors, on housing.
Since the Veterans' Land Act, there's been no effort to provide people down on their luck with the basic tools or assets of subsistence. Programs to provide skills to get a job, make money, pay taxes and contribute to the gross national product are what we have instead.
Three essentials of life food, shelter and empowerment were brought together in Canada for one brief moment in time that I am ever-thankful to have experienced.
Percentage of one-bedroom units renting for less than $600 a month in 1996: 30
Percentage of one-bedroom units renting for less than $600 a month today: 3
Number of rent-geared-to-income units in Toronto: 75,000
Number of people on the municipal waiting list for affordable social housing: 71,000