Jean Swanson: Unpacking government claims about homelessness

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      Unless all three levels of government take immediate action, next year Vancouver will have even more homeless people than the record-breaking 1,847 counted this year. That means more people are going to die early. Homeless people have only about half the life expectancy as other B.C. residents.

      That means taxpayers are going to have to keep shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars in health care, policing, and shelter costs for homeless people when several studies show it's way cheaper to house homeless people than to keep them on the street.

      That means that the 93 percent of Vancouver residents who want to see homelessness solved, won’t.

      All three levels of government claim to be dealing with homelessness. But let’s unpack what they are really doing. The province says it will spend $50 million on social housing this year. If all of that money were spent on social housing, it could build 250 units across the province.  

      Meanwhile provincial welfare rates are so low that people can’t afford rent, foster kids who age out of care at age 19 don’t have adequate support, and the province refuses to close loopholes in the Residential Tenancy Act that allow landlords to raise rents as much as they like when they buy out, harass out, or evict out an existing tenant, or if the tenant simply moves. The province also permits fixed-term leases which allow landlords to evict for no cause or raise rents as much as they want after a year.

      At $10.45 an hour, a full-time minimum wage worker paying 30 percent of their income for rent can afford $543 a month. How many apartments are available at that rent?

      So, yes, the province may be spending $50 million on housing, which could create about 13 percent of the number of units that were created every year in the '70s and '80s, but it’s not nearly enough units to deal with the results of its other poverty-creating policies.

      The feds plan to spend about $75 million on housing in B.C. this year. If Vancouver got a quarter of this, and every cent of this were used to build social housing on city-owned land, that would be about $19 million, enough to build about 95 units. Add to the 95 units that Vancouver could ideally get with the federal money, say, about 45 more units with one-quarter of the provincial money for the entire province. But the money is not all for new units. Some is for shelters or for rent supplements. Some will be for people who can afford $1,200 a month for a bachelor unit.

      With over 1,100 people who were newly homeless in Vancouver this year, even 140 more units won’t begin to meet the need—140 units mean homeless will grow at an increasing pace.

      The city says it's building hundreds of units of social housing but, because it has redefined social housing to include housing that rents for market rents, the new social housing isn’t going to the people who need it most. In fact, a recent study by Gabe Boothroyd found that only 5.5 percent of the city’s recent social housing units are guaranteed to be affordable at the welfare/disability shelter rate of $375 a month, the amount most homeless people could afford.

      The city is also allowing gentrifying developments in low-income neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside, which pushes up property values, taxes, and rents, and causes low-income people to be evicted or priced out of their own neighbourhoods.

      There are solutions

      All three levels of government need to get together and build thousands of units of social housing that low-income people can afford every year. The Alliance Against Displacement is calling for 10,000 new units of social housing a year in B.C. until homelessness is ended.

      The province should raise welfare rates and minimum wages so people can afford to rent regular apartments, stop pushing foster kids out on their own at the age of 19, implement strong rent control based on the unit, not the tenant, and end fixed-term leases.

      The city needs to ensure that the social housing it builds—and/or gives incentives for—is prioritized for those who need it the most. It needs to stop gentrification that is driving up rents in low-income areas until there is enough housing for low-income people who need it the most.  And it needs to buy or lease SRO hotels before they are all gentrified.

      The federal and provincial housing ministers are meeting later this month. If you’re part of the 93 percent who think homelessness should be solved, now is the time to let our governments know.

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      Jean Swanson is a volunteer with the Carnegie Community Action Project.

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