‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.’ ~ Mahatma Gandhi
On Friday January 8th I went to Duncan to learn more about their local approach to the homelessness crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Cowichan Affordable Housing executive director John Horn and Duncan mayor Michelle Staples formed a coalition of local governments and service agencies. Their goal was to create a strategy to meet the emergency needs of unhoused people in their communities.
Sheltering in place was the model they focused on. Limited-occupancy safe tenting sites were established in four locations in the Cowichan Valley Regional District including Ladysmith. The goal was to make each site a family-like “bubble”. People invited to shelter at these sites were provided with tents, water, meals, sanitation and security.
The approach has been very successful. Having a safe and secure location to shelter in place has allowed some individuals to get the support that they needed. Some have transitioned into permanent housing or accessed treatment for substance use. Individuals who are violent or predatory are not permitted to live in the safe tenting sites.
As winter approached it became clear that a better alternative to tents was going to be required. When I visited one of the Duncan safe tenting sites on January 8th, the tidy rows of tents were being replaced with 8’x8’ plywood sheds. The sheds are very basic shelter. They have a shelf-like bunk, a small built-in electrical heater and an outlet to plug in an electric kettle or a phone charger. They will keep the occupants warm, dry and safe through the winter.
I encourage you to watch the video I captured during that visit. I spoke at length with John Horn and Mayor Staples about the approach that has been followed in the Cowichan Valley and the success that they have had.
The work being done there is admirable. It is a model of a human rights based approach to the homelessness crisis. One that other communities can learn from and replicate.
A Growing Crisis
For most of the past year there has been an encampment on Wesley St. in downtown Nanaimo, directly behind my constituency office. The encampment had grown larger over the course of the pandemic. On December 3rd, a fire occurred and the next day crews moved in and cleared the area. Many people lost their possessions and their tents.
Local community members contacted me. They were very concerned about people having no shelter or safety in the midst of a cold, wet winter. I share that concern. Over the following weeks reports surfaced about people repeatedly having their tents confiscated. Since then I have spent time with outreach teams who work directly with people living on the streets. I have visited camps, shelters, warming centres and soup kitchens. I have been listening, and learning even more about the specific challenges here.
We know from the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition point-in-time count last March that there are an estimated 600 people experiencing homelessness in the city. We also know that “the number of people sleeping on the streets is much higher in Nanaimo than in other Canadian communities; 61.9% are sleeping in places not intended for human habitation.”
When most people think about homelessness the image that comes to mind is of people who are visibly homeless. But the vast majority of homeless people in Nanaimo-Ladysmith are considered invisible homeless. These are people living in cars, at campsites or couch surfing from home to home. A small minority of unhoused people are responsible for some of the petty criminality that is impacting residents and businesses in our communities. And while it’s true that some people who are experiencing homelessness have challenges with mental health and/or substance use, it’s also true that many people who have homes also have those problems.
I have been contacted by community members who are struggling to remain housed. The cost of renting an apartment or home in the mid island area has increased dramatically in recent years. Many of the people I have heard from are seniors and people with diverse abilities who live on fixed incomes. The Nanaimo Homeless Coalition estimates that there are approximately 6000 people in the City of Nanaimo area who are at risk of becoming homeless. That number is startling, and very concerning. And when we take into consideration the other communities in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, that number must be significantly larger.
After I was elected in May 2019, my first question and my first debate in the House of Commons were about homelessness and the housing affordability crisis here in Nanaimo-Ladysmith. We have serious problems here, but these problems are not unique to our area. This crisis is affecting communities across Canada and around the world.
The housing affordability crisis, and increasing homelessness, have cascading effects that impact almost all members of our communities, as well as local businesses. Government spending can address some aspects of the problem, but until the big issues -- the systemic issues -- that are driving this crisis are addressed, the suffering and hardship will continue.
I acknowledge that these systemic issues are many and complicated. This blog is my attempt to explain some things that I think all of us need to know more about.
Vancouver Island is a retirement destination for Canadians and the Mid-Island region has been discovered. Real estate here has steadily increased in value as demand has increased. As housing prices increase on the lower mainland, more people are moving to the island and buying homes here. This winter the rental market has become even tighter as snow birds who can’t travel south have chosen to spend the winter on Vancouver Island.
But these forces are superficial, or just symptoms, of the larger forces at play when it comes to the crisis in housing affordability in Canada and worldwide.
The Commodification of Housing
One of the first people I met with in Ottawa was Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. She made me aware of the 2017 UN report on Financialization of Housing and the problem with using housing as an investment vehicle. Ms. Farha is featured in the documentary ‘Push’, which looks at the role of real estate investment and speculation in the housing crisis. I recommend watching this film, which is available for free online, to better understand the global scope of the crisis in affordable housing.
Housing has become an investment for pension funds, hedge funds and in Canada, Real Estate Investment Trusts. For example, between 2008 and 2018, $28 billion in housing was acquired by corporate entities in the greater Toronto area. After the 2008 market crash these investors went beyond the traditional multi-unit housing investments and started buying single family housing stock that was being sold due to bankruptcies. They also invested in housing markets that looked profitable due to real estate demand.
Real estate is purchased and packaged into investment instruments and derivatives and sold in the investment market. In some cases, the properties these pension and hedge funds own are left empty because in a hot housing market the value will increase regardless of whether properties are tenanted or not. In fact, empty apartment buildings will naturally heat up the market because it creates inflated demand for housing. It’s particularly galling when workers pension funds are involved in this real estate financialization, because the workers who are paying into those pensions can be affected by the unaffordable rents the investments create.
Numerous reports have highlighted that Canada is an emerging tax haven for the global elite. Canadian real estate was identified as a major vehicle for money laundering with estimates that in 2018 alone $5.3 billion was laundered in BC. Transparency International reported that a third of the most expensive residential properties in Vancouver are owned through shell companies and 11% have nominees listed on title, hiding the beneficial owners. Unregulated lenders that aren’t required to report money laundering accounted for $25 billion in residential mortgages in Greater Toronto. The use of real estate for tax havens and money laundering has artificially inflated values. All of this has distorted real estate prices in Vancouver and Toronto, driving up the prices of homes for everyone in those cities. Now the rest of the country is feeling the ripple effect of these predatory investment practices as the cost of housing increases everywhere.
As the price of housing increases so does the cost of rent. Renters often have to move when the house or apartment they live in is sold. Landlords can evict tenants if they or a family member are moving into the home or if they are renovating. Finding a new home with comparable rent is often impossible. In BC there are rent-control measures to protect renters from unreasonable rent increases if they are staying in the same place, but there is no limit to how much a landlord can increase rent between tenants. In some provinces such as New Brunswick, there are no rent controls and landlords can increase rents by huge amounts.
The emergence of “home sharing” platforms - like AirBnB and VRBO - have also been a serious disruptor in the rental housing market, particularly in communities that are popular travel destinations. The “AirBnB effect” has been studied and documented: increases in short term rental listings correlate to both higher long term rental costs and higher home prices. While short term rentals may have taken a hard hit during the pandemic, AirBnB has major plans for expansion over the next decade.
House flipping is another activity that is impacting housing affordability. Sometimes renovations are involved, sometimes not. An entire genre of reality television has sprung up around real estate in general, and house flipping in particular. Stories have power. The stories told about real estate are perverting the whole idea of what housing is -- homes for people. Reality TV has shaped public perception of housing as a commodity, a tool for generating capital.
Increasing the Divide
Inequality is growing in Canada and around the world. Every year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyzes data comparing the pay of the top 100 CEOs in Canada with the income of the average worker. The data they released this year for 2018 shows that these CEOs made as much money in the first 34 hours of the New Year as the average worker makes in a whole year. That’s 227 times the average annual income.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated income inequality. During the first six months of the pandemic, ten of the world’s richest billionaires increased their wealth by $400 billion. The 20 richest people in Canada increased their wealth by $37 billion during the same period.
These ultra wealthy Canadians are also making massive profits from real estate investments that affect how much rent the average person has to pay - often their own workers. At the same time that housing prices and rents have increased, wages for workers have remained stagnant. We need structural reform of our tax system. This reform should include wealth taxes and inheritance taxes for the ultra wealthy, and the closing of tax loopholes that allow wealthy people and corporations to avoid paying taxes in Canada and to offshore their wealth.
Housing is a Human Right
Canada is a state party of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of the declaration recognizes the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. Canada has also fully ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a UN human rights treaty which recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for themselves (sic) and their family, including adequate food, clothing and housing”. Countries that have ratified this treaty are obliged to “take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right.”
These rights have recently been affirmed by the Government of Canada in the National Housing Strategy Act which received royal assent in June of 2019. The act states: It is declared to be the housing policy of the Government of Canada to recognize that the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right affirmed in international law.
The right to adequate housing also includes encampments for homeless populations as outlined in this document A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada written by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Leilani Farha and by Kaitlin Schwan, Lead Researcher for UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. This document states very clearly the rights homeless people have under international law.
Here are a two relevant excerpts:
“International human rights law does not permit governments to destroy peoples’ homes, even if those homes are made of improvised materials and established without legal authority. Governments may not remove residents from encampments without meaningfully engaging with them and identifying alternative places to live. A ‘forced eviction’ is considered a gross violation of human rights." “Canadian governments must ensure, at a minimum, that basic adequacy standards are ensured in homeless encampments while adequate housing options are negotiated and secured. Governments’ compliance with international human rights law requires: (1) access to safe and clean drinking water, (2) access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, (3) resources and support to ensure fire safety, (4) waste management systems, (5) social supports and services, and guarantee of personal safety of residents, (6) facilities and resources that support food safety, (7) resources to support harm reduction, and (8) rodent and pest prevention.”
Homelessness in Canada costs Canadian taxpayers billions of dollars. Research has shown that the average homeless person costs taxpayers between $29,000 and $59,000 per year, depending on which city they live in. In 2009, the Surrey Business Association tracked one homeless person with mental health challenges for a year and estimated she cost taxpayers $171,000 for the services she needed, including hospital visits, paramedics, police, social services, court and shelter costs. They estimated that if she was placed in stable housing with a support worker it would only cost taxpayers $17,000 per year. We clearly cannot afford to have people homeless in our community. It makes far more sense to provide adequate housing, services and supports.
I have been actively advocating for additional funding to help with the local homelessness crisis. During the COVID 19 pandemic it is critically important that governments do all they can to support homeless populations. The federal Reaching Home program is managed locally by the United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island and works with the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition. Reaching Home provides annual designated and Indigenous funding for the Central Island Region (RDN and CVRD) which goes to organizations such as CMHA, Tillicum Lelum, John Howard and many others. The annual amount for designated funding is $616,624 and the annual amount for Indigenous funding is $256,382. There have been two additional rounds of emergency funding during the COVID pandemic this year with totals of $716,186 in designated funding and $538,446 in Indigenous funding. These funds are used to alleviate the crisis and transition people into homes. You can find out how this funding works by watching these two videos produced by the United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island.
Many residents of Nanaimo-Ladysmith are upset about what is happening in our communities. Some people don’t feel safe. People are fed up with petty crime and having stuff stolen from their yards, homes and businesses. There is compassion fatigue.
At the same time many people are also upset that there is so much poverty in our communities, that low income housing is so hard to access and, that there are so many people who are homeless or close to becoming homeless.
There is still a lot of compassion in our communities. Outreach workers are out there day and night trying to help those who need help. People want to ensure that the fundamental human rights of people experiencing homelessness are respected. Every person on the street is someone's son or daughter, and with a bad run of luck it could be any one of us.
The mid island region has historically been an affordable place to live. The rapid increases in housing costs and rental rates have caused a lot of distress and anger. It’s important to remember that the high cost of housing is a symptom of bigger forces. For the most part, individual property owners and small scale landlords are not the problem. Many of these homeowners are struggling as well and create rental units in their homes to help cover their mortgages and bills, or to provide some retirement income. This type of housing continues to have a place and an important function.
All governments and communities have a role to play in the housing affordability and homelessness crisis. The federal government must deal with inequality in society through a fair taxation system, by properly regulating and taxing Real Estate Investment Trusts and other real estate investment vehicles, and by changing laws so that Canadian real estate cannot be used for money laundering or as a tax haven. The Federal government can also create and tie national standards to dedicated housing fund transfers to the provinces, in order to ensure that the provinces properly protect renters and the housing rental market. Rent and vacancy controls that regulate the amount that landlords can increase rent, combined with empty home taxes, will disincentivize predatory investment practices that drive up housing costs.
The federal government abandoned the funding of affordable housing in the 1980’s, and downloaded responsibility for housing to the provinces in 1993. With the exception of BC and Quebec the provinces downloaded that responsibility onto municipalities. Under the national housing strategy, the federal government is re-investing in affordable housing in Canada with direct grants to municipalities, non-profit housing organizations and co-op housing, and with subsidies for private developers to construct purpose built rental units. The government is also introducing rental subsidies for low-income renters but this is a band aid which transfers tax dollars to landlords, not a long term solution.
I’m a big believer in co-op housing because the residents are the collective landlords, there is no profit motive and properties are not bought and flipped for investment purposes. Residents pay rent based on their income, if their income increases they pay more until they reach a market rate. If a resident loses a job and their income, they do not lose their home as a result. Seniors are able to retire and age in place in the same co-op communities with young families. Co-ops create stable and inclusive communities. I’m also a big believer in non-profit housing that creates mixed communities but which also provide special support for seniors and people with disabilities. These are the housing models that the government should concentrate on funding.
It takes everyone in the community to build a community for everyone. We need to fight for the kind of affordable and inclusive communities that we want.
I invite you to write to me and share your thoughts on these issues - firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclosure: I was a renter from the age of 18 to 36. For the past twenty years I have been a homeowner and a landlord. My wife and I bought a house in the old city quarter in 2001 with a miner's cabin on the back of the lot (the original building on the property). We have been renting that cabin for twenty years. When we purchased a new home and moved in 2011, we kept the other house because we wanted to ensure that if home prices continued to rise our children would have a place in the community that they could afford to live in. We rent our old home below market value and increase the rent based on increases in taxes, city services and insurance. The tenant in the cabin is a senior on a fixed income who pays well below market rent and has had no rent increases in six years. Both homes have had energy retrofits and are Energy Star buildings.