The problem with the #DontHave1Million housing rally

The Mainlander-46
City-wide housing march, July 16th 2014

This Sunday an unusual Affordable Housing Rally will be held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The stated goal of the rally is to attract Vancouver’s middle class residents, “young professionals,” and “well educated people” who #DontHave1Million. In the words of the organizers, the rally seeks to amplify the voices of an “increasingly incensed population of Vancouverites who by comparison live pretty privileged lives.” In a city with deepening poverty and a long history of working class housing movements, the event has been interpreted as a bold shift capable of highlighting the housing aspirations of Vancouver’s relatively affluent.

The story goes that Vancouver is becoming home to the poor and the rich, with no place for the so-called middle-class. For years this has been the official policy of the Vision-led municipal government, whose own “bold” housing strategy excludes those who make under $21,000, as was first outlined with the terms of reference for the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordability. Instead of supporting those at the bottom, official city policy offers tax breaks to developers to build expensive market units for the middle and upper classes. The effect of prioritizing aspiring home-buyers is that Vancouver’s low-income housing stock is being eroded everywhere from the West End and City Centre to the Eastside, creating another spike in homelessness.

These politics of the status quo are reflected in the programing for Sunday’s rally. Working class organizations have been all but excluded. The Social Housing Alliance, which has been organizing around housing and homelessness in BC since 2012, asked to be included in the event but were declined by the organizers. Likewise, the Power of Women, which has organized the Women’s Housing March since 2007, is not listed as participants or speakers. Nor have the DTES SRO Collaborative or Carnegie Community Action Project, or any other representatives from low-income, racialized, or Indigenous movements who are disproportionately affected by the housing crisis.

Instead, the speakers list consists of Wes Regan, executive director of the Hastings Crossing (DTES) Business Association (BIA). By advancing the interests of the gentrifying businesses, Regan and the BIA have been key players in the aggressive gentrification of the DTES. Another speaker will be Tony Roy, executive director of the neoliberal BC Non Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA). For the last few years the BCNPHA has been pushing BC’s housing non-profits to embrace the expiry of operating agreements as an emerging opportunity for private public redevelopment schemes. Also invited to speak is the author of the blog post The Decline of Vancouver, which recapitulates the usual scapegoating of foreigners for the housing crisis while obscuring the role of the local elite installed at every level of government.

In short, evictions, displacement, substandard housing, and homelessness will not be acknowledged this weekend – even while the demand for middle-class homeownership directly contributes to these problems.

The myth of trickle down affordability

So why organize a housing rally exclusively for the middle class? The case goes something like this: helping the middle class will help everyone. To do this we need solutions targeting the housing problems facing the middle class, especially affordable forms of homeownership.

The idea of trickle down affordability, also known to economists as ‘filtering theory,’ is not new. The theory of filtering, developed by right-wing think tanks in the United States in the 60s and 70s, refers to the assumption that when housing units for the middle class are added to the market, tenants with lower incomes move up the housing commodity chain, leaving their previous affordable units available for others.

Many real estate corporations in Vancouver take filtering theory to its logical conclusion, arguing that the more condo units we add to the market, the more people we help by pulling tenants up the housing ladder, improving the average level of housing quality and affordability for everyone.

Studies of the Canadian housing market indicate that the effects of filtering theory are not only exaggerated, but nonexistent in terms of overall affordability. Andrejs Skaburskis’ 2006 research article concludes that, “the filtering process is both too slow and, at best, can have too small an effect to be part of a government strategy for reducing the housing burdens of low-income people. Filtering is not helping lower-income households.”

Through the daily process of gentrification, luxury and mid-level home ownership works against the existing stock of affordable housing. The people who are the worst affected by the housing crisis have repeatedly declared that the larger problem can’t be solved without addressing the problems facing low-income people.

What does it mean to propose homeownership as a solution to the housing crisis? It means that for-profit real estate corporations – and their parties at city hall – will continue to dominate our housing economy, when instead we need non-commodified social housing. It means that SROs will be turned into condos, that rents will rise across the board, and that working people will be displaced from their homes and neighbourhoods.

It is also important to reflect on what it means to rally in favor of property ownership in a city like Vancouver, located on unceded Coast Salish territories. The model of property ownership and the commodification of land is at the origins of the housing crisis, which for Indigenous people dates back to the beginning of colonialism. Vancouver is experiencing not just a housing crisis – it’s a land crisis. Without acknowledging this fact, we are just repeating history.

Housing hierarchy perpetuates the crisis

One of the organizers of the event, Eveline Xia, repeatedly makes the point that she has a Master of Science and still can’t afford to live in the city. The fact that “respected professionals” and people with a “good education” can’t afford to live in the city is repeatedly stressed. And of course this fact is a true sign that the city is absurdly unaffordable. However, this way of approaching the problem only reinforces the idea that middle class people deserve to access home ownership and other settler-colonial entitlements. It assumes that certain people have truly earned the right to stay in the city, emphasizing the division between seemingly deserving and undeserving residents.

Last year at the City Wide Housing March, Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS) president, Tracey Morrison, gave a moving speech about how she had to almost die in order to get housing. Only when she was lying at the intensive care unit was she offered housing by Atira housing society. People in Tracey’s situation will not be represented or heard this Sunday. Instead of Tracey, you will hear about how hard it is for Eric and Ilsa to build a house with enough space for their live-in nanny and their combined income of $360k per year. It is a shame, because it is only through the leadership of Tracey, not Eric and Ilsa that Vancouver’s housing crisis can be genuinely confronted.

We challenge the organizers to stand by their word to take “a lesson from those less fortunate than us who have endured their own housing crisis for much longer. It’s time to follow their lead. It’s time to stand up for ourselves and for our communities. It’s time to stand with them too.” As a starting point, invite low-income speakers to the rally, reach out to low-income residents, centre the housing problems faced by the majority, not the minority. Take leadership from the Indigenous residents whose land we stand on, land that has never been ceded, and who despite only making up 2% of the population in the city make up over 32% of the homeless population.