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Rights + Justice

Vancouver Housing Crisis ‘Worse on Virtually Every Level,’ Says Former UN Investigator

And every level of government is complicit, says Miloon Kothari.

Am Johal 20 Jun

Am Johal is director of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

It’s been 10 years since Miloon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, visited Vancouver. He was back in town last week to receive an honourary Doctorate of Laws from Simon Fraser University.

While in town, Kothari attended a rally in support of residents of the Balmoral Hotel. Residents of the single-residence occupancy hotel were recently ordered to leave after the City of Vancouver found it a risk of collapse. He also stopped by the tent city at 950 Main St.

Having helped coordinate Kothari’s site visits back in 2007, I was pleased to interview him during this trip and hear his reflections on the housing situation in Vancouver today. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Am Johal: You were here for about a week or so — it’s been 10 years since you arrived in Vancouver as part of your UN mission to Canada looking at the right to adequate housing. You had a chance to visit the city’s Downtown Eastside, the Balmoral Hotel and the tent city. Can you share some reflections?

Miloon Kothari: Overall, I’m actually quite shocked on several fronts. One is that the housing crisis that I observed in 2007, 10 years ago, has become worse on virtually every level, whether you look at the level of homelessness, densification of poverty, the crisis of rental housing and the lack of housing options for low-income people. So that’s been quite surprising. These adverse housing and living conditions are partly fed by the hyper-speculation and gentrification you see all across the city.

I’m also quite disturbed by the fact that the city government, instead of playing the role of protecting housing options that lower-income people have, has been either through acts of commission or omission actually abetting this whole process. The kind of gentrification that you see happening in the Downtown Eastside, and that you see now in Chinatown is also being done through a process of rezoning, through the development of condominium buildings that drive up land values for adjacent areas. There doesn’t seem to be a commensurate attempt to increase the housing options for lower-income and modest-income people. You either see a shortage of shelters or inadequate conditions in shelters, a complete reduction in the number of single resident occupancy units, or the type of decrepit situation that you see at the Balmoral.

I don’t know what the logic is there, but [it’s] similar to the logic in other cities, where municipalities, in collusion with developers, deliberately let a particular area deteriorate and then it becomes an emergency. And then, when renovations happen, those properties don’t ever go back to the people who lived there before, which is a legitimate fear that the Balmoral residents have. Putting them into BC Housing and other SROs is a good step, but there seems to be no guarantee that they can come back, or that the Balmoral and other SROs will be retained as housing options for low-income people.

It seems that we’re getting urban policies of densification without the regulatory safeguards to protect lower-income and modest-income people — and also that densification through market measures hasn’t produced affordability in an adequate way. The profits go upward and accelerate social inequality — they have for some time and development trajectories only show this accelerating under current policies.

There are three problems with how it has unfolded in Vancouver. One is that it’s a very piecemeal thing. The other thing is that it’s not really mixed use. Projects seem to be segregated along income lines, such as the Woodwards condominium. The third thing is that the city hasn’t come to grips with this whole thing called affordable housing in a proper sense. They are not able to define it properly. Affordable housing becomes a catch phrase that could mean anything — housing for low-income people, housing for middle-income people, housing for high-income people — affordable to whomever can afford it.

When you say a building is going to be 30 per cent affordable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that low-income people will be able to live in that building. This phenomenon is coupled with this other bizarre situation that in B.C., an anomaly in the Western world, where welfare rates haven’t gone up in 10 years in such an expensive city. If you had low inflation, rent control, or a situation where prices hadn’t increased, you might even be able to justify it. When you know that the welfare shelter rate is nowhere near what the rents are at, then it makes no sense at all. It’s a slap in the face of the poor.

You visited the tent city a few days ago, just off of Main Street — the exact site you visited when you came to do your report on Canada’s housing situation for the UN Human Rights Council. I’m wondering if you can comment on some of your observations and conversations that you’ve had while you’ve been here?

It was the same spot and some of the people were the same. There were many more people and in fact there isn’t enough room to accommodate everyone. The tents have spilt over onto the street. In the kind of acute housing crisis that you have in Vancouver for lower-income groups, there seems to be no choice — there aren’t places to live that are affordable. Most of the residents I spoke to said that in the tent city, the living conditions and the atmosphere is much better than the shelters and some of the SROs. Which gives you an indication of how bad the situation really is.

Tent cities are not a housing solution. The fact that they exist and that they multiply is actually an indicator of a housing crisis not being solved, or that sincere attempts haven’t been made to solve it. I know there are tent cities in other places. I’m in touch with the people in Maple Ridge. Tent cities, SROs, people doubling up in tiny rooms are all indicators that [over] the last 10 years or longer, the housing policies in Vancouver and B.C. have failed. The city officials indicate that there is little they can do — and they’re partially right but not entirely. The federal and provincial governments need to do more. The city’s own policies and approach needs to be changed as well. That’s not happening now, but hopefully with a human-rights based national housing strategy from the federal government there will be a more focused approach by provincial and local governments that gets at the root of the problem.

There are a lot of examples of cities around the world that are doing well in relation to affordability and in mitigating market forces. It’s been pointed out that they have greater regulatory and jurisdictional power than the City of Vancouver has — be it Montreal, Vienna or Barcelona. This intergovernmental bickering that becomes so tiresome and part of the political culture on various issues is part of the stalemate here — one that most everybody finds unacceptable given the gravity of the situation. Can you comment on city government responses that their hands are tied until senior levels of government step up, or they’re hamstrung by the limits of their jurisdiction? What more could they be doing unilaterally in order to deal with the situation as it is?

They are partially right, but not entirely so. There is a great legacy of housing that’s been built with a partnership of all three levels of government. There was a time, you know, that Canada was well regarded internationally related to its co-op housing sector. What happened? There was robust funding support over a long period of time. So that kind of support hasn’t been there the past 20 years or so. It has been piecemeal. The increase in homelessness can be attributed to this partially, but also the social welfare policies have been victims of neoliberal policies, which cost society more in the long run.

Obviously that creates a situation [for Vancouver’s government], that they are squeezed for funding at the local level. But that in itself doesn’t excuse the fact it is still a very wealthy city. There could be higher taxation on higher valued properties. One thing the city could do is improve the shelters — they could slow down gentrification using zoning and other regulatory measures. There’s no reason why the gentrification that is happening in the Downtown Eastside or Chinatown should be allowed. An entire area could be zoned off from this speculation to protect the low-income people living there. It has to be a political choice. It requires leadership at the political level. One can’t rely on the planners without the political sanctioning of such a policy. If you are doing rezoning, it could be limited to developing social housing for those most in need, not for the rich. A few token units for seniors and low-income people are insufficient. So I don’t see the city doing an adequate job in trying to stem that tide of gentrification.

851px version of Balmoral Hotel
Vancouver’s Balmoral Hotel, recently deemed structurally unsound by city government officials. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

The only conclusion you can reach is that there has to be collusion between the city machinery, developers, and obviously homeowners are de facto part of that too. That is who is benefiting from this system as it is. And it’s hurting the vast majority of the people who live here. We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars being made in this corrupt structure. People should be thoroughly embarrassed by this. If this were a similar situation in other countries, there would be investigations and hard questions being asked. Why are interest rates so low? Why are the banks being downgraded for being overexposed in the housing market? There should even be criminal investigations related to the real estate sector. The story of the unbridled real estate market in Vancouver is casino capitalism as its worst — a lottery which reduces a social resource like housing to a commodity.

It’s cheaper to own and rent in places in Montreal, so people don’t really talk about housing as a crisis. In Vancouver, it’s hard to spend 15 minutes not talking about it. Anything you’d like to add that conversation?

I’m very inspired by the level of community activism. I attended a rally on Sunday at the Balmoral. It was impressive to see so many groups and individuals that have come out in support of the tenants there. The Balmoral could become a symbol for a change in the city. It’s also received national attention and should be seen as an embarrassment to the City of Vancouver. For that level of civil society action to really bear fruit, it’s really important that alliances are built across sectors and across the city. It can’t just be in the neighbourhood or it will fail to gain traction at the level of policy and policymakers. Groups like academic institutions, labour unions, other social justice groups. That would be good to see.

The crisis is such that it’s at a citywide level and it needs a citywide response. Cross-sectoral alliances could also be built with national organizations working on housing issues. City and national campaigns on housing rights are the need of the hour, as it is evident in many cities and countries around the world. Such campaigns could seek to ensure that housing is not treated merely as a commodity but as a basic human right. I raised this issue during my terms as UN special rapporteur. It’s great to see that the current special rapporteur, Leilani Farha, has initiated a global call to action around this theme. The city and national campaigns could also push for a much more rigorous use of the UN’s human rights machinery. There hasn’t been enough done to make the linkages between the local and the global.

When you talk about cities calling themselves “human rights cities” or taking a “human rights approach” to housing, can you explain a little bit what you mean by that in terms of policy and facts on the ground?

In Montreal, there’s a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities. There are other cities around the world that have declared themselves as human rights cities as well. What this essentially means is that you have a housing policy that is designed around the needs of the most marginalized first, because a city should be for everybody. Everyone who lives and works in a city should have a right to city, to be able to access the best of what the city has to offer. This principle has been accepted in the “New Urban Agenda” that emerged from the Habitat III Conference in Quito in October.

One of the key requirements of a human rights based approach would mean developing a housing continuum approach. The Vancouver city planners talk about this, but it has not been implemented in an egalitarian manner, otherwise you would not have the housing crisis we have today. An ideal continuum approach would have shelters, assisted shelters, students’ hostels, working people’s hostels, cooperative housing, temporary housing, permanent social housing, all the way to affordable rental, rent-controlled housing with strong policies promoting security of tenure of tenants rather than the flimsy policies that exists under the current provincial regulations.

Only at the very end of the continuum would be ownership housing. Right now, with the development that is going on, it’s really about fulfilling the insatiable appetite of the speculators’ market for home ownership, which in fact is not where the real need clearly is. Its ownership skewed towards the upper end. I call Vancouver an apartheid city. Someone asked me if I meant along income lines. That’s partially true, but if you look at which population groups are disproportionately represented in the tent cities and SROs like the Balmoral in the Downtown Eastside, these are Indigenous people and migrants of various ethnicities that are disproportionately represented in relation to their overall population in the region.

I stand by my comment calling Vancouver an apartheid city. There don’t seem to be any concrete measures to reverse that. The mayor should declare Vancouver as a human rights city and then follow the right to housing approach. There are some groups locally talking about this (even in places like Whistler and West Vancouver). The activists working on the ground should be viewed as partners rather than as adversaries.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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