In mid January, resettlement agencies in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Halifax asked the federal government to slow down the arrival of government-assisted refugees. One of the key reasons they cited was that they were struggling to find permanent housing for refugee families. While there is no excuse to delay the arrival of refugees, the government is right about one thing: cities in Canada, and particularly in British Columbia, have hardly any permanent and affordable housing available for working poor and low-income people on welfare, disability and pension; including for refugees and other new arrivals.
In 1993 the Liberal majority Federal Government cut Canada’s regular social housing programs. Ten years later, in 2002, the BC Liberals ended the long-shrinking provincially funded social housing program. A decade or so later, in the winter of 2014, the cuts were so entrenched that the BC minister of housing, Rich Coleman, declared that “we don’t build social housing” anymore. At the same time, because of the lack of rent control and a booming real estate market, rents have skyrocketed in the private rental stock and in 2014, the average market rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Metro Vancouver was $1,038.
Despite widely-circulated misinformation, government-assisted refugees receive the same monthly income assistance as a welfare recipient in BC: $375 for shelter and $235 for a support allowance, including food. Like the tens of thousands of other welfare recipients across BC, the newly arrived refugees face a harsh reality. Upon arrive their monthly income will not even cover the most basic food supplies and housing. Like most people on welfare, refugees will end up in overcrowded, temporary apartments, always on the brink of homelessness and on endless waitlists for social housing.
Yet instead of uniting people in their shared experience of the housing crisis, many experience the situation as one of competition in which their needs are pitted against one another. This has led some to argue that people who are already here should be prioritized before refugees. This feeling is based in low-income people’s experience of the scarcity of affordable housing; in the desperation and hopelessness that results from the ongoing struggle of housing unaffordability. This reinforces the myth that there is no alternative to housing insecurity because this is just the way things are.
The housing crisis in British Columbia has become so normalized that many people who we count within our “metrics” of homelessness feel their conditions of displacement and insecurity are inevitable. They feel it is normal to get evicted, to have to wait for ten years to get into social housing, and for welfare rates to be as abysmally low as they are. Today we can’t imagine an alternative to the current conditions of scarcity. Instead, we end up fighting for the crumbs.
The government and landlords supports this idea because it absolves them of responsibility for the housing crisis. In response to resettlement agencies’ requests to delay the inflow of refugees, Minister John McCallum simply said that the private sector needs to do more to help the refugees get settled. This offloading of responsibility to the private sector and individuals comes after already significant cutbacks to the number of government-sponsored refugees. McCallum’s deflection of responsibility for housing to private-sector philanthropy is similar to how the Trudeau Liberals have followed through on their promised admission of Syrian refugees. During the election campaign, the Liberals promised to resettle 25,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of 2015. But shortly after taking office, they lowered the overall target to 10,000, most of which will be privately sponsored. Meanwhile, news fanfare about the admissions of Syrian refugees covered for the barriers Trudeau kept up against African refugees, Canada’s ongoing military bombardment of Iraq and Syria under his watch, and his continued inaction on housing promises gestured towards during the election campaign.
While the housing crisis is real and severe, it should not be used as an excuse to delay or stop the inflow of refugees to Vancouver or Canada at large. Rather than seeing this housing scarcity as an excuse to stop immigration and gate-keep who has access to social housing and social services, we should use this as an opportunity to widen our struggle. The fact that there is no housing for refugees further exposes the breadth of the housing crisis and the urgent need for permanent solutions.
Homelessness, displacement and housing scarcity are ongoing and inevitable parts of the system we live in and won’t be solved with temporary measures. Instead of treating the housing crisis and larger displacement crisis as an exception, addressed with emergency measures, we need solutions that go to the root of the global displacement crisis. We need to build alliances between displaced oppressed people, no matter where they originated or where they are arriving.