Yesterday in Vancouver, one of the top TV news stories was a protest in the city council chamber.
Activists were incensed over the court-ordered eviction of tent city residents on city-owned land at 950 Main Street.
They demanded the right to housing. This resulted in the mayor and council adjourning the meeting and taking a two-hour break.
During this intermission, demonstrators sat in chairs previously occupied by politicians, passing motions to achieve their objectives.
To some, it may have seemed like a theatre performance for the media.
But according to a former UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, Vancouver has fallen far short of efforts by other large cities in advancing the right to housing.
Miloon Kothari, a Delhi-based architect and consultant, visited the Georgia Straight office during a recent visit to Vancouver when he was awarded an honourary degree by Simon Fraser University.
He pointed out that the governments of Montreal, Seoul, Mexico City and other municipalities have declared that they are "rights-based cities". He suggested that this is a key step in advancing the right to housing.
Vancouver, on the other hand, has not done this.
"There hasn't been an understanding that being homeless or being forced to live in a decrepit SRO or in a tent city is in of itself a violation of people's human rights," Kothari said. "And it needs to be talked about from that perspective."
Montreal shows the way
Kothari explained that rights-based cities commit to advancing policies that don't discriminate against the most vulnerable.
For example, the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities recognizes that human dignity "can only be preserved as part of a sustained struggle against poverty and all forms of discrimination".
Article 18 commits the City of Montreal to taking "appropriate measures to ensure that housing meets public health and safety standards with regard to the health and safety of tenants".
The Montreal charter also commits the city to "taking into account, in the implementation of housing measures, the needs of vulnerable persons and particularly individuals and families with low or modest incomes".
"They have an ombudsman that you can complain to if there's a problem with human rights," Kothari said. "And other cities have similar mechanisms of redress."
In addition, rights-based cities take proactive measures to protect human rights by identifying in advance where discrimination might occur.
Canada's poor are constitutional castaways
Kothari acknowledged that the Canadian government has not recognized housing as a civil right.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. And according to Vancouver housing activist Jean Swanson, people are dying of homelessness.
However, a recent essay by UBC Peter A. Allard School of Law professor Margot Young and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent described the poor as "constitutional castaways" because courts have often tossed out legal claims for housing rights.
In 1976, Canada ratified the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Kothari highlighted during his interview.
Signatories have pledged to "recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions".
In addition, signatories to this UN covenant have pledged to "take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right".
Kothari said there are periodic UN reviews of countries' human-rights records.
"There are a number of recommendations on housing that have come out of that—very complete recommendations," he noted. "There's a lot of work, interpretive work, that's been done on how do you implement the right to housing."
He thinks the time has come for city officials to look at this work and learn from it.
According to Kothari, the lack of a rights-based approach in Vancouver is contributing to a perception that housing is a "commodity". He suggested that this facilitates "hyperspeculation", which makes shelter less affordable.
He also claimed that Vancouverites tend to look upon the provision of adequate housing for the poor as "more like a kind of charity" rather than a human right.
"It would be great if the mayor would declare, 'Look, from such and such a date, Vancouver is a human rights city. We're going to treat everyone equally. Everyone has a right to what the city has to offer'," Kothari said. "This has been done in Montreal. It's been done in other cities in the world."
Domestic speculation identified as a factor
This was Kothari's fifth trip to Vancouver, where he has previously reported on housing conditions. He said that parts of the Downtown Eastside have some of the most appalling housing he's ever seen.
"On almost all counts, the situation has gotten worse," he said.
Kothari called it "unbelievable" that in Vancouver, there are separate entrances for residents of social housing that are attached to larger developments.
"It's quickly becoming an apartheid city," he declared.
Kothari visited the Balmoral Hotel when he came earlier this month.
He claimed that the city could have gone into the building and performed repairs, and later billed the owners. Instead, the city let the East Hastings Street SRO deteriorate to the point where it had to be shut down and the tenants relocated.
In addition, he questioned the value of simply taxing foreign investment in housing when statistics indicate that a great deal of the speculation is being done by Canadians themselves. And the media focus on foreigners lets local speculators off the hook, according to him.
"Why would you discriminate?" Kothari asked. "Also, it's not the only measure you can take. You can take other measures: not allow properties to be flipped in a short time."
He emphasized that the housing situation in Vancouver could only reach such a sorry state because of "long-standing collusion between politicians, bureaucrats, and the developers".
Kothari said that without acknowledging—and even investigating—the possibility of corruption and without taking strong steps to stop speculation, every other solution will merely be a Band-Aid on the problem.
"We're going to allow people to make millions and millions and we're going to do a little bit to protect the rest of the population, which is not how a city should work."