Bureaucratic language hides what is really happening from ordinary people and often makes situations look way better than they are. Bureaucratic language also makes people’s lived experience invisible and therefore irrelevant. I came across two examples recently.
Social housing. When we hear those two words most of us think: housing for low income people. But give those two words to the Vancouver city council report writers and, voila, social housing morphs into buildings where only one third of the housing has any rent limit and the other two thirds rent for what the market will bear. It happened in a February 23 report to council by the “General Manager of Planning and Development Services.” The justification for the change in definition was Orwellian. The old definition was “outdated” said the report. It actually specified who the low income people were: persons receiving “War Veterans Allowance, Canadian Pension Commission Disability Pension, Guaranteed Income Supplement, Spouses Allowance or income from Guaranteed Annual Income for Need.” How atrocious!
The new definition, however, had been created “to reflect modern day practice, ” said the report. It “incorporates provisions to ensure that social housing is provided to those persons who are most in need (at least 30% of social housing at Household Income Levels as defined by BC Housing),” it went on. So what in the heck is Household Income Levels? That requires a bit of googling, and a bit of math. But the bottom line was $912 a month for rent, $6 a month more than the entire disability pension. So really, the new definition does not “ensure that social housing is provided to those most in need.” It actually ensures that social housing does not have to be provided to people who are most in need. But you have to go through a huge translation process to figure that out. Meanwhile people who believe what the city says think it is really ensuring that “social housing is provided to those persons who are most in need.”
I would love to find out what plans the provincial government has for housing the 10,000 to 18,000 homeless people in the province and for dealing with the 14,000 people on the social housing wait list. So I turn to the 2015 BC Housing Service Plan which outlines what BC Housing intends to do in the next year. Whoa, the table of contents looks promising: There’s a Performance Plan with goals, measures and targets. Let’s see, if I were setting up a couple of goals for BC Housing I think they would be ending homelessness in BC. Then I would get rid of the wait list for BC Housing by finding good housing for everyone on it. Let’s see what their goals are. Oops. Number 1: “support a strong non profit housing sector”. Then they go on: supporting the non profit sector means selling off BC Housing’s social housing. That’s their goal. Nothing about ending homelessness. Nothing about reducing the wait list.
Maybe the next one will have something to do with homelessness: “Respond to needs across the housing continuum.” Homeless people have needs and could be part of a housing continuum I guess. But the “housing continuum” includes people who own homes. If their homes are worth under $1,100,000 they get a $570 a year grant from the province. This grant costs the government about $800 million a year. What if they spent $800 million a year on housing for people who are homeless? Whoa. That could build 4000 units. But that information isn’t in the BC Housing Service Plan. “Housing continuum” makes it sound like everyone has equal need when it comes to housing which isn’t true of course.
What’s really bad is when the media pick up on something that’s in the bureaucratic language and repeats it as though it’s true and ok. The Metro newspaper, for example, quoted Candice Bergen about the $600 million for Housing First as though that is actually a reasonable contribution to ending homelessness. So then the readers think the government is tackling homelessness when it is only throwing peanuts at the problem.
Plain language please. Then we’ll know what our politicians are really talking about.