Homelessness is nothing for Canada’s progressive political parties

If Canada’s 2019 federal election was a Shakespearean play, it would be MacBeth: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

If that seems like an exaggeration, look at the housing policies of the two big progressive parties: the Liberal Party and the NDP. During the past three federal government terms, homelessness has mushroomed from a social problem – with low income people in every major city suffering full shelters and miserable, dangerous housing conditions wherever they could find them – to an emergency so vast that homeless people are a visible part of every community, at least in western Canada, no matter how small.

But while both the Liberals and NDP raise occasional “sound and fury” about the housing crisis, neither party has a plan to seriously reduce or end homelessness.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and the $5.7-billion spin

After the 2015 federal election, the shine had not yet come off Justin Trudeau, and he and his Liberals’ promises to take the housing crisis seriously sparked hope amongst some social housing groups. After the election, the new government’s housing minister Yves Duclos organized a cross country consultation tour on the housing crisis. I was part of a coalition that drafted an open letter calling for 77,000 units of “tax-funded social housing” to be built every year across Canada, with 10,000 built every year in BC. And when we tried to storm Duclos’ meeting in Victoria, the City’s mayor, Lisa Helps, told us we should not be angry or make demands; that we should give Duclos and the Liberals a chance and approach them as partners because they were sure to be better than the Harper Conservatives.

Jean-Yves Duclos (right) & Rich Coleman, B.C. Deputy Premier and Minister Responsible for Housing (left) at a housing consultation event in Victoria in June 2016. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

But the outcome of the Duclos consultation, which has shaped Liberal housing priorities since, ended up being pretty consistent with the approaches refined under Stephen Harper: incentivize capitalist markets. When Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who has taken over Duclos’ housing portfolio, claims that the government has spent close to $5.7-billion on housing, he is following the lead of the Duclos consultation, which is why that $5.7-billion has not made a dent in homelessness.

So how have the Liberals spent this $5.7-billion? If applied entirely to government funded social housing construction, that money could have built nearly 30,000 new units of social housing, assuming that the average cost of a unit of social housing is $200,000. But the Duclos consultation plan aggressively shunned the work of building tax-funded social housing in favour of private public partnerships. The Liberals’ housing plan limits the federal government intervention in housing to giving tax dollar subsidies to private developers.

In January, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation said that less than 15,000 units of what they call “affordable housing” have been or will be built by the Liberals’ $5.7-billion. The rest of the money went towards repairs of existing housing, infrastructure maintenance, renewing operating agreements for existing housing, and private rent subsidies.

Of these programs, private rent subsidies, which the Liberals also call the “portable housing benefit,” sounds the most beneficial to renters at risk of eviction and homelessness. But, as urban geographers like Martine August have found, private rent subsidies operate as a conservative, free market replacement for public or social housing construction. Building new social housing might be more expensive at the outset, but the new construction is an investment in a long-term public asset: a publicly owned building that will still be secure housing for hundreds of people, ten and twenty years down the road. Private rent subsidies, however, pour public tax dollars into the silk purses of private landlords, who appropriate that public money as an added benefit on top of the money they’re already making off of the market-engineered increases in property prices.

The problem with “affordable housing”

The fewer than 15,000 units of “affordable housing” built with Liberal government dollars are no better than private rent subsidies. Trudeau is misleading us by maneuvering with tricky language: “affordable” is not a synonym for “social” housing.

“Social housing” generally refers to housing that is non-market and not-for-profit, and operated by a co-op or non profit housing operator or government. Social housing is often subsidized so that it is affordable to people with very low or no incomes.

“Affordable housing” as a term used by politicians, however, has no specific policy meaning. It is a useful “politician speak” term because it sounds like it would mean building housing that low-income people can afford. But, deceptively, the most common politician use of the term is to refer to building new market rental housing, or unsubsidized non-market housing that is roughly the same cost as market rental housing.

The Liberal “affordable housing” policy is to spend $15.9 of its overall $40-billion earmarked for housing (over 10 years) on direct subsides and low interest loans to private real estate corporations. The only condition that a developer must meet to qualify for this payday is that 30% of the units in their development must rent for less than 80% of median market rents.

In May 2019, Rentals.ca listed Vancouver’s median market rent for a 2-bedroom apartment as $2,915 and for a 1-bedroom, $1,828. So if a developer fixed 1/3 of the rents for a 1-bedroom units in a new condo or rental building at $1,462, or 1/3 of the 2-bedroom units at $2,332 per month, then they would qualify as “affordable housing” under Trudeau’s definition, and for federal government subsidy – and would be cited in the next election stump speeches as having housed people vulnerable to homelessness.

People on social assistance in BC receive $375 per month for rent, which would mean they would not be able to afford this affordable housing, even with one of Trudeau’s rent subsidies. And people making a “living wage” of $15 per hour make $2,400 a month, which would mean they would be paying 61% of their incomes to rent in this affordable housing, making it unaffordable to them too. This means that “affordable” housing is still not affordable for people who already cannot afford market rents.

In 2017, the Liberal government promised that their plan would “cut homelessness by half,” without ever saying how many people they thought were on the street, so “half of what?” was the first problem. It was also a problem that they never released specifics of what housing would be built or how; using “affordable housing” language rather than saying they would build tax-based social housing. The result is that two years later, homelessness is still climbing, not decreasing.

But ending homelessness was never the Liberal plan. As Dulcos wrapped up his speech about the findings of his consultation at a session in Vancouver in September 2016, Letizia Waddington, a member of Alliance Against Displacement, shouted out from the crowd that was otherwise dominated by professionals: “Not a word about homelessness?!” Duclos paused a moment and then said homelessness captures a lot of media but the government is prioritizing action on the housing crisis that affects “most Canadians.”

Jagmeet Singh’s “half a million homes” are a repackaged Trudeau Liberalism

Jagmeet Singh has dialed up the sound and restrained fury of the Trudeau Liberals, echoing the “democratic socialists” Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders in the US by adopting rhetoric that seems to put people before profits. The name of the NDP platform is “A New Deal for People,” referring to the “Green New Deal” movement and progressive platform in the US.

And while Trudeau’s language about housing is oriented mostly towards the “most Canadians” who own or want to own property, Singh seems to speak directly to the evictions and high cost of rent. An NDP news release quotes Singh as saying, “No Canadian should have to choose between paying their rent and putting food on the table, but this impossible decision is all too real for too many families from coast to coast to coast.”

Unfortunately, this sympathetic rhetoric does not amount to policies significantly discernable from the Liberal housing plan enunciated through the Duclos consultation. The biggest problem is that Singh’s NDP has adopted the policy language and public-private-partnership limitations of “affordable housing.” So while “half a million quality affordable homes” sounds good, it does not mean that any of us who cannot afford the rent in a market-rate apartment today will be able to afford the rent in one of Singh’s 500,000 homes.

How many of the Province of BC’s “temporary” modular housing units, like this one in Maple Ridge, will be replaced by real social housing, under the NDP’s housing platform? (CTV Vancouver)

The only place the NDP plan is specific about social housing is that they say within the first 2 years they would spend $5-billion on coops and social and non-market housing. At approximately $200,000 per unit, that would make about 25,000 units across Canada in those 2 years. BC, which has about 13% of Canada’s population, would get about 3,250 of these non-market housing units. Those units would be welcome. Though they would not be enough to come close to ending homelessness, they would be able to replace the temporary modular housing that homeless people are currently warehoused in throughout BC.

But, unfortunately, the NDP does not say if this housing would be subsidized, so it could be built through the same Trudeau plan: as 1/3 of the publicly subsidized private developments. The fact that their promised amount equals about 1/3 of the overall promised “affordable housing” in that same period lends weight to this doubt. Because the NDP plan does not name the ongoing subsidies available to these units of housing, or define the scale of affordability, it is impossible to be sure that this housing would be affordable to people who cannot currently afford market rents.

Like the Trudeau Liberals, the NDP’s housing plan also relies too much on public subsidies to private developers and property owners. The major plank of the NDP’s plan to build half a million homes in 10 years is through tax breaks for private developers. Singh says that an NDP government will stop applying GST to the cost of building new “affordable” units. If an NDP government relies on private developers, and the incentive of private profits, to build 500,000 units of affordable housing, then the scale of affordability will also be set by the limits of that profit incentive.

Other aspects of the NDP plan also echo Liberal policies. Singh has promised subsidies to renters who spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent, which is exactly the neoliberal policy of pouring public dollars into the private pockets of landlords. And the NDP also offers public support to prospective private home owners, promising to double the first time home buyer’s tax credit.

Housing policies signifying nothing

To speak words that “signify nothing” means that your words do not refer to real things. They make sounds, and may even represent feelings, and evoke emotional responses, but these words – like the words of the Liberals and NDP about Canada’s housing crisis – do not correspond to policies or actions that will address or end that crisis.

There are millions of people in Canada who are living on the streets, in warehouse shelters, temporary housing, on the couches of friends or family, in vehicles, or under constant stress and worry in dilapidated buildings that are overcrowded, under maintained, and more expensive than we can afford.

It is not our fault that we live in these unhealthy, precarious, and dangerous situations. Canada is a settler colonial power that has, since its formation, consistently attacked and razed the homes, economies, cultures, and bodies of Indigenous peoples. A result of this violence, as recognized by the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, is widespread poverty and homelessness amongst Indigenous communities. This poverty and homelessness is a sharp edge of Canada’s anti-Indigenous genocide.

The profit-oriented logic of capitalism does the rest. Working class people, and particularly those whose wages are lowered by the white supremacist cultural logic of race, citizenship status, and English language supremacy, do not live in housing that was built for use as homes. They are consigned to housing that was built by private developers and landlords in order to return a profit on their investment. The logic of the housing market seeks the greatest profit: if tearing down an apartment building to build a condo tower will yield greater returns than rents, then the landlord will not hesitate to evict the tenants. In the meantime the landlord gouges tenants for rents, knowing that if one tenant cannot make the rent, another will.Our communities living the housing and homelessness crisis deserve policies and actions that signify a turn towards housing justice – which can only begin as a counter attack on the property forms introduced by settler colonialism and against the profit logic of capitalist investment. It is no surprise that the Liberals are not making that turn. But while Jagmeet Singh is unlikely to form government, the least he could do is to speak words that accurately identify the housing crisis, and present policies that signify something.

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