Olympic cities punish poor

A University of Toronto sociologist claimed in an academic paper that poor people suffer greater housing shortages and lose their civil liberties in cities that host the Olympics. Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, author of two books on the impact of the Olympics, told the Georgia Straight that she will present her paper, “The Olympic (Affordable) Housing Legacy and Social Responsibility” , at a conference in October.

Her paper notes that the vast majority of bid cities in the past two decades””including Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Amsterdam, Sydney, Beijing, Toronto, Athens, Turin, New York, and Vancouver””all shared a common problem: a housing and homelessness crisis. Many of them, including Vancouver, listed housing as part of their Olympic-legacy promises.

“However,”  Lenskyj wrote, “the actual post-Olympic situation in recent host cities suggests that an affordable housing legacy is unlikely to materialize, and that, in fact, conditions for homeless and inadequately housed people are exacerbated by hosting the Olympics.” 

In mid-August, Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society highlighted five downtown residential hotels””with almost 350 rooms””that have evicted tenants for renovations or redevelopment. The latest, the American Hotel at 928 Main Street, gave eviction notices to occupants of 37 rooms effective September 30.

Recently, Vancouver business officials have been clamouring for more measures to address “aggressive”  panhandling, even though this is already outlawed under the provincial Safe Streets Act. “Big business stands to gain the most from the Olympics, and the most disadvantaged members of the community stand to lose the most,”  Lenskyj told the Straight.

She also said that the homeless were targeted prior to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when 9,000 African-American homeless men “were kind of carted off and charged with some trumped-up crime like being in a parking lot without a car” .

“They were ticketing the drivers of the vans that were distributing food [to the homeless],”  Lenskyj said. “They criminalized the distribution of food as a so-called health hazard.” 

She added that prior to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australian politicians passed a series of laws to criminalize homelessness and panhandling in key tourist areas. “Some of them were only good for the duration of the Games; some of them were good for two years; and some of them had no sunset clause on them.” 

Her paper notes several interrelated housing trends in many Olympic host cities, including: evictions of tenants in low-rent housing, particularly in “Olympic precincts” ; a significant decrease in boarding-house stock; evictions resulting from gentrification and beautification of low-income areas; artificially inflated real- estate prices; unchanged or weakened tenant-protection laws; the criminalization of poverty and homelessness; temporary or permanent privatization of public spaces; and temporary suppression of human rights, particularly freedom of assembly.

Lenskyj's paper, which she'll present at the 8th International Symposium for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario October 19 to 21, cited four common justifications for meting out “inconveniences”  on disadvantaged residents. The “ticking clock”  argument emphasizes that Olympic construction must be completed on schedule, resulting in the fast-tracking of social-impact and environmental studies. Then there is the “eyes of the world”  argument: the disappearance of homeless people and slums will enhance the city's image when hordes of journalists and visitors arrive.

Lenskyj cites “Olympic leverage”  as a third justification””citizens should not criticize funding of sporting facilities, housing, and infrastructure. The “Olympic catalyst”  rationalization emphasizes that new market housing will have a trickle-down effect, resulting in more housing choices for low-income renters.

“In short, these kinds of arguments do not promise positive legacies for the disadvantaged residents,”  Lenskyj wrote. “Rather, they convey a message of indirect benefits for which they should be grateful, even if their basic housing needs remain unmet and their basic human rights are threatened.” 

In 1999, the International Olympic Committee adopted “Agenda 21: Sport for Sustainable Development” , which cites the importance of protecting the health of vulnerable populations, boosting local housing strategies, and giving community groups access to information. Lenskyj pointed out that Agenda 21 wasn't made compulsory for Olympic host cities.