By Ivan Drury
We are at a crossroads in history where the very idea of social housing is in danger of being destroyed. Federally, the majority Conservative government is waging a war on public services (except prisons). The legal vestiges of rights and dignities of anyone on the wrong side of a growing divide between rich and poor, Canadian and foreign, settler and Indigenous, domestic and queer are under attack. Locally Vancouver feels dominated by those who prefer the idea of charitable developers to rights and social responsibilities. The Vision-dominated city council is a champion of scraping together crumbs of affordable housing as real estate developers and investors feast on low-income and working class communities.
Yet social housing has never been more essential. Homelessness rises where social housing shrinks. Hot real estate investment markets are the hot plate burners that get rent prices boiling. Low-income affordable SRO hotel rooms evaporate. Real estate prices have shot up more than 100% in many areas of the DTES in the last year alone. The number of privately owned SRO hotel rooms renting at welfare rate has fallen from 28% in 2009 to only 7% in 2011.
But not everyone in the low-income community is convinced that we should fight for social housing; often because they have had bad experiences with it. So maybe the near-death of social housing is also an opportunity; maybe now is the time to fight for social housing and remake it anew as an indivisible part of our fight for social justice.
1. The government isn’t building social housing
Social housing has been steadily eroded since the feds cut their social housing programs in 1992 and the BC Liberals cut theirs in 2002. The final offload of housing responsibility could be happening now, as social housing is being put off from the Province and Municipalities to charities like “Streets to Home” and the “Cuz We Care Foundation”. It is time to defend housing as a right for every person and as a social responsibility of the state to provide. It’s important to remember it wasn’t always this way; in the 1980s there was an average of 787 social housing units built in Vancouver every single year. The Feds, Province, and City must provide housing for low-income and working class people, not through charity or the benevolence of the super-rich, but through taxation.
2. We need social justice not social control
The social housing that is being built in the DTES these days is mostly “supportive” housing. The rooms feel more like jail cells than housing. Residents have restricted visitor rights, forced room-checks, mandatory food programs, and if they have trouble with staff there are no accountability processes. “Supportive” and “transitional” housing are exempt from the Residential Tenancy Act. Residents don’t have tenancy rights, they are governed by the whims of their landlords – called “housing providers” – who say they know what’s best for the people who live in their buildings.
When they call for social housing, low-income people are demanding their rights and dignity, not care from professional housing providers. To steer away from the current trend of treating housing as health care and residents as patients in a sprawling open air institution, we should think about protecting and securing privately owned low-income housing as well. Plus, with the deficit of social housing that has accumulated over the twenty years since the feds pulled their funding, it’s going to take a long time to get all the social housing we need. Our social housing campaigns should include demands for rent controls and rent caps by the unit so that landlords can’t raise rents if they manage to evict a low-rent paying tenant.
3. Social housing discriminates
The government acts as the gatekeeper for social housing and many people do not qualify for the housing they need because of the governments’ political agendas. People who are labeled with mental health diagnoses and with addictions are segregated in supportive housing projects without tenancy rights. Undocumented people – without legal citizenship status in Canada – are excluded from social housing rolls, even though many of them are greatly in need of safe and affordable housing. And people who live in families that the government does not recognize as legitimate are forced to apply as singles and denied family housing. BC Housing breaks up street families, people with multiple partners, parents and adult children, and extended families who stay together with aunties, grandparents and cousins.
Our fight to save social housing must of course be first a material fight for a return to the days of 787-units-a-year – we need to force the Canadian state and society to acknowledge the disastrous effects of a booming real estate economy on working class and especially low-income people. Taxing real estate investment and speculation to build housing sheltered from the windstorms of the real estate market is only one part of the response. We need to make future social housing safe and healthy places for everyone who needs it, regardless of their citizenship status, family type, or how they have been stigmatized by policing institutions. Insulated against fear of homelessness and displacement, we can continue the fight for justice together.