Yesterday, November 21st, was the national day of action on housing, with events and actions happening across the country. As part of this movement calling for a national housing strategy and a stop to the cuts, The Mainlander presents a backgrounder and analysis.
This year’s Vancouver homelessness count showed that more people than ever are living on the streets in BC’s largest city. Gentrification in the Downtown Eastside is taking an enormous toll on people, with rents for market housing and SRO (single room occupancy) hotels continuously rising.
Housing across BC is about to face even more strain with the expected mass expiration of funding for existing social housing. In the next 20 years, over 36,000 units of non-profit housing in Greater Vancouver, including co-op housing, social housing and senior housing, are set to lose their funding. Over 45% of these units will lose their funding in the next six years and the majority of them – 17,000 units – are located in the City of Vancouver.
This is part of a nationwide trend, with 99% of operating agreements across the country expiring over the next twenty years if current austerity measures are not reversed, which amount to $3.5 billion in reduced government expenditures annually. Presently there are no federal or provincial plans to initiate new, or extend existing, operating agreements. “We don’t build social housing any more,” said Minister of Housing Rich Coleman flatly earlier this year.
The process of funding expiry has already begun, with tenants across the province experiencing the first wave of this unprecedented withdrawal of public housing funds. In Vancouver, tenants in low-income housing projects such as Lions Manor, Heather Place,Chau Luen, and Stamp’s Place, are already having to fight to stay in their homes.
Uneven effects of funding expiry
The loss of funding will disproportionately affect those who need affordable housing the most, the people for whom social housing is the last stop before homelessness. In Metro Vancouver, the list of the types of housing units to be impacted in the next twenty years is extensive. Nearly 800 units and shelter beds targeted to homeless people and 2,000 units for people who were previously homeless; almost 2,000 units serving people with special needs; over 4,500 units for seniors; more than 7500 units for low-income families; and over 17,500 rent-geared-to-income housing units will lose their funding in the next 15 years .
Although some providers will be “financially viable” after their expiration date (partly because they have already replaced low-income tenants with higher income tenants), what should be stressed is that the housing providers who are least likely to be viable post-funding are those who currently house the highest proportion of low-income and precarious households.
The current tenants in the Urban Native housing stock will be among the most likely to be evicted as a result of rent increases, according to a report by the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association. The report concludes that unless these projects are provided with extended funding, “many low income urban aboriginal household will be displaced and potentially made homeless…In the strong Vancouver market, these properties could be made financially viable but only by changing the income and rental mix.”
The study extends this dire forecast to the majority of Urban Native housing, as well as to the majority of the Public Housing projects in Canada, based on their high proportion of Rent Geared to Income (RGI) tenants and the high proportion of tenants with deep subsidies (low-income tenants). These building are also likely to be older and in need of significant repair, further reducing their ability to be viable without continued funding.
From crisis to opportunity?
Neoliberal policy makers, journalists and urban think tanks have framed this mass expiry in optimistic terms. In 2009, a report by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA)called it an “emerging opportunity.” Last week the BCNPHA again hosted a conference under the theme, “Housing Burst: From Crisis to Opportunity.” A recent article series in The Tyee similarly frames it as a “huge opportunity.” What these conferences, articles and research papers have in common is their acceptance of the status quo and their embrace of market solutions to capitalize on the effects of austerity measures.
As we see all too often under neoliberal governments, the deployment of a shock becomes the necessary grounds for the introduction of market reforms, with the ultimate goal being privatizing public assets and services. When it comes to social housing, market reforms include the implementation of public-private-partnerships (P3), re-development and densification, for-profit social enterprise ventures, and replacing low-income tenants with high-income tenants within buildings.
As a result of austerity and market reforms, Canada’s largest and oldest social housing developments – Regent Park, Little Mountain, Heather Place, Stamp’s Place – are all undergoing large scale public-private developments. The redevelopments of these social housing projects will not only entail a drastic loss of low-income housing units but will also break up and disperse low-income communities.
Despite the neoliberal optimism about post-expiry reforms, nothing could be more alarming and concerning for the under-housed, precariously housed, low-income and working population of BC. Together these strategies will entail a significant loss of affordable housing through demolitions, re-development, gentrification and a shift towards new tenants with higher incomes.
Re-thinking the concept of social housing
A growing number of policy recommendations have been focused on finding ways for non-profits to sustain themselves outside of an ongoing government funding structure. This approach has also been embraced by some parts of the left who champion collective housing and squats as a way to achieve autonomy from the state or, in the words of a CCPA commentary, “to be more independent and less reliant on – and limited by – funding from governments.”
While the state-funded model of social housing is not without significant problems, it is also crucial to acknowledge that social housing for the over 100,000 people facing homelessness in BC will not come through autonomous efforts by activists and squatters to fill into the empty cracks of the private housing market. While these efforts can play an important and essential role, they are not enough on their own. To echo the Social Housing Alliance’s Action Plan for Cities, enough housing to meet the needs of people facing homelessness can only come through tax-based housing programs organized by the provincial, federal and city governments together.
Yet acknowledging the need for a national housing strategy does not mean that the model and basis of social housing can’t change – nor does it mean that the struggle for social housing is only about housing. Far from presenting a deterministic chain of events culminating in the expiration of funding, the very existence of social housing today is a testament to the determined and prolonged fight of past generations. But moving forward we also need to acknowledge both the successes and the shortcomings of these struggles.
This includes recognizing that the necessity of social housing has always been shaped by colonization and the government’s role in upholding and facilitating the advance of market forces and private land ownership models. It should also acknowledge that the struggle for social housing often stopped at the level of housing reform, and often failed to see the housing crisis as part of a larger social crisis. As such, it also failed to to link the struggle for housing with parallel movements, including the struggle against capitalism and colonialism.
Only through persistent organizing, and through the building of an anti-displacement movement that includes women, migrants, non-capitalist producers, and unwaged workers, can we challenge models of social housing that presupposes an underlying economy of colonial land ownership, predicated on expropriation and displacement. And only through that movement can we begin the fight for a model of social housing based on social justice, resident control, and the needs of everyone.
The current crisis represents not only an opportunity to re-ignite old post-war struggles for housing, but to rethink the concept of social housing itself. Social housing is a concept that, despite its current form of state management through undemocratic non-profit organizations, contains an important kernel of fundamental – even revolutionary – change.
 BC Housing Freedom of Information Request filed by Jean Swanson
 Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (USA: Random House, 2008)