Anti-homelessness housing advocates have been calling for a “national housing strategy” ever since the federal Liberals stopped regular funding for Canada’s national social housing program in 1993. With this election it seems the demand has carried upwards and has been seized on by three of the four major parties seeking office. But while the words of the slogan have caught on, its spirit is wandering elsewhere. None of these big-party housing strategies [see Sarah Sheridan’s article for a breakdown of their platforms] includes ending homelessness and building as much social housing as we need.
There are three basic pillars of the housing crisis, and each has to be dismantled in order to craft a federal-government housing strategy that will serve those most vulnerable to the pains of this crisis.
Pillar one: There is no single “Canadian nation;” Canada is an occupying power seated on the stolen lands of Indigenous nations. Today’s housing and displacement crises are continuations of the uninterrupted crises of dispossession and displacement started by the making of Canada.
A federal government strategy to end the housing crisis must be a multi-national effort with First Nations to fund, build, and maintain homes on reserves, tribal communities, and in urban areas to end the inadequate, unhealthy housing and homelessness of Indigenous people. This housing effort would be a modest correction to decades of destruction of Indigenous peoples’ homes and community structures. It should be a redistribution of the wealth stolen from Indigenous people and not a market-based or for-profit project.
Pillar two: Today’s housing crisis in Canada is a Frankenstein monster of capitalist globalization. In the 1980s Canada followed the Euro-American trend of turning away from making things and towards a Finance-Investment-Real Estate (FIRE) economy that made real estate investment and speculation a more central part of the economy. The capitalist demand for constant growth means that cities must either expand their borders or, where they can’t expand any further, roll over older, low-income and working-class neighbourhoods to “grow” new, taller, more expensive condo towers. This economy works only for real estate speculators and corporations.
To end the housing crisis a federal government housing strategy would tear up free trade agreements and enact legislation sharply restricting real estate speculation regardless of the nationality of the investor. Reversing the trends of the Conservative government over the past decade, it would open the borders to working people and close them to real estate speculation and investment within and outside Canada.
Pillar three: Housing that is built and sold for corporate profit will not house the people who need it most. In the last twenty years governments have stopped taxing the rich to house the poor (as the slogan goes) and homelessness has skyrocketed. It is not difficult math to figure out that the less social housing is built, the more people are on the street. Lacking social housing, people with incomes too low to pay rents driven high by a real estate market-driven economy are forced to make do in that economy. They make do by paying nearly all their incomes for rent (like people in SRO hotels in the Downtown Eastside), by packing five people into a one-bedroom apartment (like people in walk-up apartments in South Burnaby), or by living in homeless shelters or outside (like people in the homeless camps sprouting up throughout British Columbia).
The real estate market is the problem that causes the housing crisis; there is no solution to be found in it. Yet all the major parties have housing platforms that rest on providing incentives to market housing – both subsidies to individual landlords and tax breaks to development corporations. A federal government housing policy serious about ending the crisis would take on the problem of the housing market by providing shelter against it and building non-market, social housing. In British Columbia alone, there would have to be 10,000 units of social housing built every year to overcome the deficit of twenty years of funding cuts. Besides restoring funding to existing social and co-op housing, the federal government should fund and make agreements with provinces and municipal governments to build something like 100,000 units of social housing every year across Canada.
Along with this housing we need to take back the definition of social housing and undo the stigmatizing of social housing that has accompanied decades of cuts. This new era of social housing would not be medicalized, patronizing, and institutional. It would break from the settler-colonial ideology of individual homeownership and myths of liberal self-reliance and insist that our homes are products of our social wealth as a whole. Rather than sources of profits for a few, our homes can be shelters from the winds of global displacement forces, and from there we can continue our struggles for justice.