The definition of social housing has been the focus of the low-income caucus currently participating in the Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Process (LAP). While a definition of social housing seems simple, it will actually play a crucial role in debates over the DTES Local Area Plan (LAP) in the coming weeks.
This week – on March 12th – Vancouver city staff will present a final draft of the LAP for the Downtown Eastside to city council. The Vision-led City Council will be using this opportunity to strike the definition of low cost housing and social housing in the City’s bylaws, and replace both with a new definition of social housing.
The recommendation in the policy report calls on council to strike low cost housing, defined as “dwelling units designed for persons receiving War Veterans Allowance, Canadian Pension Commission Disability Pension, Guaranteed Income Supplement, Spouses Allowance or income from Guaranteed Annual Income for Need.”
The existing definition of social housing, to be eliminated, reads “residential units, purchased by a government or non-profit housing group using available government funding, for housing senior citizens, handicapped persons or individuals or families of low income.”
The City is now proposing to replace the current definition of social housing and low-cost housing with a new definition of social housing. The new definition reads:
(a) housing in which households with incomes below core-need income thresholds occupy at least 30% of the dwelling units,
(b) rental housing owned by or on behalf of the city, Province of British Columbia, or Canada,
(c) rental housing owned by a non-profit corporation, or
(d) housing owned by a non-profit co-operative association
This new definition of social housing is problematic for several reasons. The “or” between (c) and (d) implies that social housing could be any one of these and does not have to fulfill all of the four criteria. This means on the one hand that social housing can be for-profit, and on the other hand that rental housing can count as social housing irrespective of rent rates.
Furthermore, section (a) states clearly that only 30% of units in a given building need to be set aside for core-need renters in order for an entire building to qualify as social housing. This means that regardless of the rents for the remaining 70% of units, all units will count as social housing.
Core Housing Income Thresholds referred to in Section (a) are today commonly referred to as Housing Income Limits (HIL). HILs represent the income required to pay the average market rent for an appropriately sized unit in the private market. The HIL rents are in other words market rents. In Vancouver, the HIL for a bachelor apartment is an income of $35,000. This means that if an affordable rent is deemed to be ⅓ of a person’s income, the HIL marekt rent for a bachelor is $875 per month.
It is clear that the housing income limit rents are far above what a person on welfare or disability, for example, can afford. Welfare provides a monthly cheque of $610 and in 2006, the median household income in the DTES was a meagre $13,691.
While the LAP has outlined targets for affordability and social housing development, they will mean nothing if the definition of social housing changes. At the end of the day, bylaws override policy targets. If the by-law change is approved, it will mean that developers will no longer be required to make social housing affordable for low-income people.
The Vision Vancouver council has been at the forefront of the neoliberal dismantling of social housing in our city. Now they want to dismantle the very concept. As Jean Swanson said in the February issue of the Downtown East, a definition can literally displace a community.
Come to city hall on March 12th to speak out for a definition of social housing that doesn’t exclude low-income people. For more information about speaking at the public hearing, read Carnegie Community Action Project’s guide here.