Micro-housing: the non-solution solution: By Shane Calder

No one is saying Micro Housing is a solution to homelessness: not city planners, not housing advocates and certainly not the homeless. But here in Victoria the Micro Housing initiative is starting to gain speed. People involved in what could be termed the ‘Micro Housing Movement’ say we live in the midst of a perpetual housing crisis where big governments have completely abdicated any responsibility for building social housing, and cities are left to do what they can. Micro housing, they argue, is an affordable, accessible and doable option for civic governments, who should support building these tiny homes. The troubling thing about Micro Housing is that it feels like giving up the fight for state social housing programs, but the smaller scale of those little homes might also have space for autonomous community actions and more solidarity.

Beacon Hill tent city, Victoria 2008
Beacon Hill tent city, Victoria 2008

In 2000, while the City of Portland, like virtually all North American cities, was in the midst of a housing crisis a group of about 60 homeless folks established a camp on a green space next to an inner city highway. By ‘housing crisis’ I mean the cost of rent was so far out of reach for enough people that the shelter system was, again, like all North American Cities, overcrowded and over flowing. Nearly 4,000 people were effectively, utterly homeless in the city of Portland. Sixty of those homeless people took it upon themselves to do what the established social service systems couldn’t and created a self-directed community, answerable to themselves alone. The ‘Dignity Camp’ was born and for a brief spell, amid criticism, name calling, calls for police intervention and bylaw enforcement, a community was born: a community born out of opposition. Through some hard bargaining this community presented the city with a plan and eventually were granted a place on city owned land. Dignity village was born.

Recently the Victoria City Council hosted a presentation by Mark Lakeman from ‘Dignity Village’ in Portland and Andrew Heben from ‘Opportunity Village’ in Eugene. At this presentation all the ‘who’s who’ of social inequality management was in attendance from police inspectors to executive directors to by-law enforcement officers. We saw pictures of quaint 400 square foot sheds with flower pots, loft beds, communal kitchen areas, and gardens. We learned about how residents in these U.S. “Village” groups make decisions, choose residents, allocate space, and basically how the magic happens. The possibility was palatable.

After the grand meeting held at Victoria City Council chambers with the suits and high salaries, I was left with a troubled mind. I am not someone to get in the way of an initiative that may help someone, but when we look at the scale of the housing emergency in our inner cities, a housing project that aims to remove 40 people from the shelter system is nothing to get excited about.

But here is something that might be worth a little bit of excitement. The large social service non-profits in the city, the organizations who receive the lion’s share of government funding to ‘manage’ poverty, are generally quite cynical of this blossoming project and generally want nothing to do with it. They cite the impossibility of finding land (something the city has committed to doing) and the ‘unmanageable-ness’ of the residents. They argue that it’s no solution to the housing problem. While the last point is admittedly true, I don’t actually think that’s what bothers them. In both the Oregon examples, to some degree these communities are managed by the residents. This clashes with something essential to all top-down poverty management structures: patronization. Residents of Dignity Villages are refusing the removal of personal power, denial of collective power, and the system of deserving vs. non-deserving poor that are the norm in most social services.

The residents of Dignity Village, and very likely the residents at Victoria’s proposed Solidarity Village, have found a solution to the patronization of the social welfare system. Solidarity: the most effective tool any welfare recipient, slum lord tenant, or low-paid worker will ever have. Not just the solidarity of internal strength and cohesion but the solidarity that extends beyond the confines of your particular group/circumstance, and resists the division of good worker/bad worker, deserving poor/undeserving poor. It’s that sort of housing initiative that’s a thing to celebrate.

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