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Rights + Justice

‘The Housing System Has Failed Everyone There’

Canada’s national housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle toured tent cities in BC, and found a broken housing system. A Tyee interview.

Jen St. Denis 8 Sep

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Marie-Josée Houle is Canada’s first federal housing advocate. The role was created as part of the government’s National Housing Strategy, a 2017 initiative that reversed the 1990s-era decision to step away and leave the the housing file to provincial governments.

Houle, 51, is originally from Edmonton but now lives and works in Ottawa. She’s worked in housing advocacy for the past 19 years as executive director of Unity Housing Ottawa, a consultant for housing co-operatives and executive director of Action Housing, an organization that helps tenants at risk of losing their housing.

Houle said she lobbied for the creation of a national housing advocate — an arms-length role separate from government that views housing through the lens of human rights’ protections. It took years, but early this year she stepped into the job.

Houle decided her first visit outside Ottawa would be to British Columbia, where she visited tent cities in Prince George, Vancouver and Victoria and met with housing advocates. The Tyee caught up with her just after she’d met with residents of a tent encampment at CRAB Park and housing advocates from the Downtown Eastside. The interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Housing is a big file. What’s your main priority as you start this role?

For us, the mandate is to look at systemic housing issues, and there's no shortage of them.

My first week after I was officially appointed I met with my team and I said, "look, Indigenous housing is my priority. I'm gonna say that right off the bat because of the disproportionate amount of Indigenous people who are precariously housed and who are unhoused."

We met, took our time and met with national Indigenous organizations, to make sure we did it well, to recognize the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The government in March had announced some very bold record investments, but investments are quite frankly not meeting the need — and everyone knew wouldn’t meet the need — around housing supply.

I had to step back and say it's about the right kind of supply — because it's not a supply issue. It's not that simple.

Some might even say that there is quite a bit of supply, it's just not accessible to people — not just because of affordability, but because it's just not on the market. The supply that is used for short-term rentals, the supply that is secondary homes, recreational homes, investments not meant to even house people but to park money, to just sit there.

So my statement around the budget at that time was like, "This is great that we're seeing investments. This is great that the federal government is taking this seriously. But the question of housing precarity is front and centre."

We will never be able to buy and build a way out of this crisis. We have to address the financialization piece.

Can you tell me why you wanted to come to British Columbia on your first trip outside Ottawa?

The things going on here, it’s been heavily pronounced before the pandemic, but the pandemic exacerbated it and exposed a lot of it across the country. We saw encampments across the country during the pandemic, but never quite as pronounced as here.

We also know that there's a lot of community activism here, but the tensions are very high. The tour was pretty much baked before a series of horrible incidents happened: people being shot and killed, or lit on fire or the threats of burning down encampments from vigilantes.

We have a lot of areas to get to. On top of doing this engagement with people, we're doing a deep dive into a systemic issue. And then we're also referring an issue to the National Housing Council to form their very first review panel.

You visited the tent city in Vancouver’s CRAB Park. What did you hear from the people living there?

First of all that the promised amenities are not there. It takes 250 steps to get to the bathroom, there are no showers, there's still just one electrical outlet and they need that outlet, not just to charge cell phones but for cooking.

That the housing system has failed everyone there.

That while there's a lot of people looking out for one another, women anywhere, whether it's an SRO or anywhere, are not necessarily safe.

And everyone there has a story, no one is disposable.

That everyone has something to share. A lot of community development happens organically among the people and people are looking out for each other.

And these are the things that give me a lot of hope. People are standing up for themselves, you know, and they are demanding the things they are entitled to.

When Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart was asked if it was time for a legal permanent encampment serviced by the city, he said that would be a failure and the real solution is housing. I'm wondering what your thoughts are about that response.

Housing takes years to build. There are so many barriers to building appropriate and adequate housing, including zoning and nimbyism and project approval. I'm told by some groups we've been meeting with that Vancouver, and B.C. in general, have some of the most stringent rules and it takes longer than anywhere else to get approval to build anything.

And then there's building the appropriate housing and then having the appropriate program. We asked people in encampments why they are there. Why are they making the very difficult choice to face the elements, the heat, the cold, the rain, being so physically exposed to hostility from bylaw officers, from police, but also the public. Where they are being hunted — let’s call it what it is.

The housing that may be offered to them is not meeting their needs, around pets, around guests. We learned there are some single-room occupancy hotels that will charge $25 per guest, and they're not even allowed to spend the night.

There are these infantilizing regulations in place, and people don't even start with a lease in some of the supportive housing options.

Supportive housing is often offered to people who have been homeless, or have mental health or addiction issues that make it difficult for them to stay housed. There are often rules, such as limits on visitors, which providers say are necessary to reduce the chaos and keep everyone safe. Do you understand why some housing providers feel they need to have those kinds of rules in place?

I think one thing that's clear across the board everywhere is just under-funding and under-resourcing. So yes, the housing providers, their primary responsibility is, as an employer, to ensure the health, safety and well-being of the people they employ.

And what we've heard from other organizations is that keeping staff who are trained, with the meagre resources they have to do so, has been impossible. So then we end up in what seems to be a rock and a really hard place. When organizations are under-resourced, they're doing the best they can — but the measures that are taken are extreme and punitive.

There's the bare, bare minimum of just putting a roof over someone's head, and a high concentration of people with varying needs.

As the federal housing advocate, what powers do you have to push for change?

I'm not a commissioner, so I can't sue government. My position is independent and it is non-partisan. I don't answer to government, but I do write recommendations to the minister in charge of housing — right now that’s Ahmed Hussen.

He is legally obligated to respond to my recommendations, and all of our reports and everything are tabled in front of Parliament and he has to respond within 120 days. So our reports don't get buried.

We are in such a point of crisis that if we do have recommendations, we really hope that we will make some traction, or we’ll make traction by adding our voices to other advocates who we meet on the ground.

The federal government has been criticized ever since it rolled out the National Housing Strategy in 2017. Housing advocates and experts have said it’s great the federal government is getting back into housing after being absent from the file for 30 years, but the funding and the amount of housing being built has been completely inadequate compared to the need for affordable housing. Do you have any plans to advocate for greater investment in the National Housing Strategy?

The National Housing Council is actually working on full research on aligning the National Housing Strategy with the National Housing Strategy Act, because the act came into effect after the strategy itself.

And the act actually has language around the human right to housing, and we're not seeing that in the strategy and the strategy programs.

So there's that discussion that's happening right away, an analysis of the national housing strategy programs to look at. Are these investments — because it's taxpayers money — are they truly doing what they're supposed to be doing? Which is, targeting the people who need them. Who has the highest needs first?

One big question that's come up here in Vancouver when we talk to tenant advocates, is about the new housing built through these programs through taxpayer money. They're calling themselves affordable, but the big question is affordable for who?

It’s based on numbers that are so inappropriate; they certainly don't target people in core housing need. So how do you measure that and how do you measure that consistently?  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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