Carceral Tenancies in Vancouver

Adapted and edited for The Mainlander by Nathan Crompton & Tyson Singh Kelsall ਤੈਸੋਨਂ ਸਿੰਘ, from an article recently published in Social Sciences as part of a special issue on “Racial Injustice, Violence and Resistance: New Approaches under Multidimensional Perspectives.” Some adaptations and hyperlinks have been added for readability. This version also includes a quote from an unpublished interview with the late Flora Munroe. 

Carceral Tenancies in Vancouver 

In Vancouver, British Columbia, there are a small number of nonprofit housing organizations – among them PHS and Atira – that receive the lion’s share of public funding and other resources to provide housing for people living with low incomes. 

Nonprofits generally operate “supportive,” “transitional,” and/or “temporary” housing arrangements, which means their residents have fewer tenancy rights than those living in the private rental sector in Vancouver – either by law or in practice. 

Unsurprisingly, this housing sector is notorious for its unsafe infrastructure, limited tenancy rights, and surveillance over residents. Transitional and temporary housing are at the bottom of the tenancy rights ladder, while supportive housing rights have become murkier in light of recent legal challenges

The Carceral Continuum

Supportive and temporary housing programs function as important nodes within the network of punitive and surveillance-oriented institutions comprising the “carceral continuum.” Nonprofit housing providers play a key part in this continuum through formal ties to police departments and health and social service agencies, reduced tenancy rights, strict guest and family policies, as well as various managerial techniques of surveillance

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) is the centre of the carceral continuum in Vancouver, hosting the majority of this category of housing – and in turn is a neighbourhood where residents build their own networks of care in the face of organized abandonment. The neighbourhood, which stretches along the city’s northeastern coastline, is colloquially referred to as Canada’s poorest off-reserve postal code. It is named k’emk’emeláy, in the language of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw. 

The DTES is subject to a wider carceral system for both housed and unhoused residents, with both a heightened presence of parole and probation officers and a high degree of police collaboration with healthcare and housing services. 

The DTES has also become a highly criminalized space for people being released from incarceration in jails and prisons. Individuals criminalized even once are then subject to intensive surveillance post-release, oftentimes with a myriad of behavioural conditions tied to their discharge, including red zones (geographic “no-go” restrictions upheld by the courts and police that cut people off of their communities and resources). It is incredibly common for DTES residents to live under the vestiges of their criminal records.

Supportive and temporary housing play a significant role in this carceral process. And because of Vancouver’s housing crisis, there are few pathways to alternative housing for someone enduring life in one of these buildings. The cost of the average private one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver has long eclipsed the rate of a full monthly disability income assistance payment, to say nothing of the non-disability welfare rate. The result is that many people are indefinitely trapped within a few city blocks. BC Housing also lists a number of exclusion criteria that bar a person from applying for the already-limited non-supportive housing options. These include “anti-social” and “nuisance” behaviours, drug use, and “begging.” Many of these terms are vague and catch-all descriptions that can be applied to tenants in innumerable ways. 

Carceral Practices in Vancouver “Housing” 

As Jade Boyd and co-authors have accurately highlighted in past analysis, supportive housing buildings are “sites of social control.” The late VANDU member and Our Homes Can’t Wait organizer Flora Munroe put it this way, “We have a dictatorship in housing down here. How do you expect people to take a step ahead, to get ahead in their lives, when all you’re doing is telling them you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” 

Carceral aspects of these sites range from video surveillance of common spaces to the direct integration of police into daily operations. For instance, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) are commonly included on advisory committees and boards of directors. They have regular meetings with housing providers, shelters, and outreach-based services. This includes sometimes being informed by housing managers about residents who are “barred,” a temporary ban based on concerns upheld by individual building criteria and staff discretion. Supportive housing staff and management frequently collude with the VPD to criminalize residents. If a tenant is receiving social assistance and then experiences incarceration for more than three months – whether through these police-housing collaborations or otherwise – the BC government halts rent payments, placing the tenant at even-greater risk of eviction. 

Picture taken July 30th, 2023, in PHS-run SRO. Submitted by anonymous outreach worker.

While staff in nonprofit buildings may enter the sector to provide support to community members, they often end up being coerced into partnering with police and other carceral branches of the state. As part of the carceral continuum, supportive housing staff might experience the normalization of hierarchy and domination through their habits, assumptions, and daily practices. This reflects what Glen Coulthard has described as psycho-affective attachment to spatial-carceral colonial violence; Frantz Fanon similarly defined this as a colonial subject abandoning their own cultural ties to take on those of the colonizer. This has also been referred to by Ghadarite scholar Harish Puri as the “colonization of the mind,” which can also extend to gender discrimination, racial capitalism, disablism, and/or the criminalization of drug use.

This coerced complicity can assuage those with power, such as managers and supervisors within this structure, to see supportive housing-related harms as regrettable, but natural parts of working within and against colonial injustice, rather than as abhorrent and calculated forms of colonial violence

A cornerstone of nonprofit housing in Vancouver are the “program agreements” that residents are required to sign to receive most forms of  shelter, written by a nonprofit entity and enforced in part by staff and management. Program agreements exist in a legal grey area and subject tenants to additional forms of control, such as strict guest and family policies, controls on behaviours and activities that market rental tenants are free to enjoy, and commitments to being a “good neighbour” – a widely interpretable descriptor. These agreements rely partly on nonprofit housing sites being labelled as health-oriented or therapeutic, not dissimilar to the repression of prisoners’ rights by naming underpaid prison labour, poor health outcomes, and inadequate shelter as forms of “rehabilitation.

Program agreements have been successfully challenged at the Supreme Court in at least one BC case, as has the requirement for visiting guests to show identification (ID) in another. However, program agreements, including ID requirements, remain common in supportive housing buildings. Red zones and ID requirements, weaponized in a community that happens to have the highest proportion of Indigenous Peoples among Vancouver neighbourhoods, replicate patterns and logics of the Pass System once upheld by Indian Agents and police across the colonial state of Canada. This system forced Indigenous People to seek permission from the settler state to leave a reserve or else risk apprehension, a policy that existed to some degree from 1893 until it was abolished in 1941. 

This collection of policies likewise reflects broader apparatuses that restrict the movement and access of people considered ‘deviant’ by the colonial capitalist state, such as migrants, racialized people, those with disabilities, sex workers, and/or those living in poverty. 

Nonprofits create their own versions of these agreements, resulting in an uneven (and confusing) set of rules scattered across different buildings in the supportive housing network. (A PHS program agreement from 2023 is viewable in the full version of this paper). Program agreements might include clauses that coerce tenants to allow housing providers to collaborate with external agencies, as well as a commitment that rent paid via social assistance goes directly to a landlord, limiting tenant power to control or withhold rent money. Between 2021 and 2023, government hotel takeovers and other housing projects in the city were established as mostly “transitional,” rather than supportive. This represented a further decoupling from normative tenancy rights in the Residential Tenancy Act that defines it. 

Transitional and temporary housing, including abstinence-based recovery and drug treatment housing, are excluded from formal tenancy protection under the RTA. As such, residents can be evicted without notice and have no effective legal recourse. 

As supportive housing has moved into a legal grey area, government has moved to make temporary shelter has become the dominant form of subsidized housing in Vancouver. Permanent, independent, family, and multi-unit housing remains scarce. Temporary and single-occupancy sites generally come with restrictions on partners residing together. Along with strict guest policies, this separates families living in poverty and creates a barrier to supportive housing among tenants raising children, arguably a structure aimed at the erasure of certain demographics. Tenants, whom the industry is built upon, experience precarity, unstable shelter, and largely inescapable poverty, and nonprofits economically benefit from keeping people stuck within the cycle of the system from which they generate revenue.

Tenants Deserve Better

Combined provincial and city branches of government, including BC Housing, have done little to hold nonprofits (and the landowners who subcontract to them) accountable for keeping tenants, workers or buildings safe. This includes limited use of expropriation, enforcement of fines, or other measures. A number of these buildings lack adequate or bare minimum accessibility design, such as functioning elevators or wheelchair-oriented infrastructure, or even an adequate amount of space. Tenant safety risks have been highlighted in numerous reports of managerial neglect at nonprofit housing sites, including overdose deaths, assaults, and murder. In addition to a lack of safety, tenants have reported that there is negligible recourse via internal complaints.

Financial resources that could improve tenants’ unsafe and unsustainable living conditions flow through several layers of bureaucracy, and a sizable portion of housing funding is lost to government and nonprofit executive salaries and administrative expenses. There are also the added costs of having several different or outsourced real estate appraisers, maintenance teams, etc., rather than a centralized hub. BC Housing does not issue requests for proposals regularly, nor are processes for awarded contracts transparent to the public. 

The province and city governments’ response to Vancouver’s growing housing crisis has been to increase their reliance on nonprofit housing providers. In both quality and quantity there have been little positive outcomes to show for this approach, helping instead to shield governments from accountability by deflecting onto third parties. A different approach is needed that invests in dignified, fully public housing, community-owned co-operative housing, and substantially increased rent-geared-to-income housing, including units with adequate space for all individuals and family structure. 

To see the full-length Social Sciences version of this article, including the full list of authors, references, sections on health & a short history of nonprofit agencies in Canada, click here. Cover photo by Mike W.