A victory in the fight to abolish supportive housing

BC Supreme Court ruling awards residential tenancy rights for Victoria tenants in “supportive” housing

A prescient banner held at Super InTent City in 2016 warns against jails disguised as supportive housing. Photo credit: Pete Rockwell

At the end of May 2018, residents of the Johnson Street supportive housing building in Victoria won a significant battle against the institutional housing provider that BC Housing contracts to operate their building. A Judicial Review in the BC Supreme Court launched by residents found that residents of BC Housing’s “supportive housing” buildings are protected by rights under British Columbia’s Residential Tenancy Act (RTA). This case is the first test of updates to RTA legislation passed by the BC Liberal government in December 2016.

SuperIntent City Society (SIC Society), a group formed through the tent city on the Victoria courthouse lawn in 2015 that resists the government’s paternalism and criminalization of low-income people, is responsible for this win, which results from these formerly homeless leaders carrying their tent city struggle indoors and pushing back against the exclusion of low-income people from tenant rights.

In August 2016, residents of SuperIntent City were moved out of their tent city and into a building purchased by BC Housing and contracted to supportive housing operator PHS Community Services Society. PHS management quickly enacted policies that contravened tenant rights protected by the RTA: they implemented a restrictive guest policy, locked the stairwells to create elevator access only, installed building-wide cameras, and blocked access to common rooms. PHS staff exercised the authority to restrict or allow guests into the building, confiscate belongings, and access personal information of tenants and guests. SIC Society members responded with protests outside the building, by speaking to media, and also by pursuing legal action.

Twelve tenants filed complaints through the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) early in 2017 to challenge the guest policy, which violated privacy, discriminated against tenants, and was often arbitrarily applied, resulting in tenants’ isolation from friends and family. PHS responded by arguing that the building was a “home-based health facility” in an effort to exempt the building from the Act and allow management to continue punitive methods of controlling residents. The Arbitrator from the RTB sided with tenants in his July 21, 2017 decision, finding that the guest policy was in violation of their signed agreements under the Act. PHS appealed this decision, taking it to the Supreme Court for a Judicial Review.

Last week, Judge Sharma dismissed this appeal, writing in her ruling, “the petitioner (PHS) has not provided any justification of why tenants who are being given a social benefit of below market housing, in an effort to try and stabilize their living situation, ought to be given less legal rights than tenants paying market rates in a residential building operated by a commercial entity.”

SIC Society’s win has pushed us one step closer to gaining tenant rights for low-income people. However, this win has not ended BC Housing’s institutional housing policies. People living “permanently” in emergency and transitional housing are not protected by the RTA and there is still no clear legal definition of what constitutes supportive housing. In an era of increasingly medicalized housing, housing providers can rename or staff their facilities differently so that they can continue to deny low-income tenants their RTA rights. Last week, justifying Maple Ridge City Council’s refusal to rezone for a proposed supportive housing facility, Mayor Read argued that the housing being proposed isn’t “supportive” enough, and should be staffed by “clinical care professionals” under the Fraser Health Authority umbrella.

The housing crisis and staggeringly low welfare rates have created a hopeless landscape for people living in poverty in BC. Low welfare, disability, pension, and minimum wage rates combined with a high cost of living mean that people living in poverty are dependent on community services for survival. These service providers are also underfunded and have to police access to their resources. Ultimately, service providers are paid to manage populations that are seen as a threat to property owner and business interests.

No matter how “supportive” they brand themselves, or how understanding their individual employees are, the relationship between service providers and the communities they work with is a politically disempowering one. Loopholes like the transitional and supportive housing amendments to the RTA give management and staff the power to make decisions about their clients’ access to resources, including their homes. This power comes at the cost of these clients’ agency, including their privacy, blurring the lines between ensuring low-income peoples’ access to essential resources and services, and contributing to the hyper surveillance and criminalization of people living in poverty.

The exemption of forms of non-market housing from the RTA is rooted in and reinforces paternalistic and criminalizing stereotypes about low-income tenants and their guests. In the wake of the Supreme Court victory, SIC Society is pledging to continue working to abolish “supportive” housing as a model that is not only unsupportive, but dangerous.

In the tent city on the courthouse lawn, SIC lost one member of their community but under PHS’s care, SIC has lost 15 lives, including due to suicide, in the Johnson Street building since August 2016. In every instance, the impact of institutionalization, including isolation from community, played a role in causing loss of life. Deaths in PHS’s Johnson Street building are a part of a larger pattern of declining health and death within and across institutionalized environments. Holistic supports should be available to everyone, but people should be afforded the autonomy to choose how and when they receive those supports.

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