Anyone who lives in the Vancouver area knows that a lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest issues facing vulnerable populations today. As a city, we've been experiencing a crisis in adequate housing for decades. At times it can feel like nothing is being done or that the problem is so big it’s too late to fix.
Women Transforming Cities held their first of many panels on important issues in Vancouver in October to hear from some of the incredible activists and changemakers who are on the ground actually getting things done. They're the ones doing the work to push policy in the right direction. That direction looks like a world where housing is a human right for all, rather than an investment opportunity for some.
This panel was formed around the concept of what Vancouver might look like if it were truly a women (and gender diverse people) friendly city. Our moderator, Tesicca Truong, guided our panelists through a conversation about the housing crisis, inspiring us with some personal and collective actions to take to create equitable housing for all women and gender diverse folks to thrive.
Here’s an overview of what was discussed and some action items we can take to create more equitable housing.
Laying the groundwork
Housing is a feminist issue, because women are disproportionately impacted by a lack of stable housing. As such, women, and particularly Indigenous women, women who have been made racialized, and any gender diverse people are the ones that must be included in the conversations around housing. Ginger Gosnell-Myers, as a policy maker, emphasized that so often we fail to, "identify the folks who need to be cared for, or lifted up, or acknowledged."
She continued saying that, "until decision makers are repeating the importance of creating housing and planning that are safe for women, women that are caring for families, that are representative of people (and we have to say who those people are) they're going to be left out in the cold."
Tenant advocate, Sara Sagaii, set the scene for the housing market by beginning with a three prong solution for solving the housing crisis in Vancouver. That solutions is as follows:
Rent control and measure to stop the loss of existing affordable units.
Stronger tenant measures to stop displacement of vulnerable populations.
Massive buildup of non-market housing through increased federal government investment.
She referenced an Acorn Study that found that, "each year the federal government’s National Co-Investment Fund builds 6,000 units and CAPREIT alone flips approximately 14,000 to get the maximum rent possible, pulling them out of more affordable priced units." Carpeit is just one real estate investment trust, a company that buys residential housing and sells them as investments. Imagine how many other affordable housing units we are losing to investment companies.
Sagaii then referenced another study done in March of 2021 by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternative which showed that, "the difference between nonprofit and for profit housing construction can result in between a 43-49% difference in rent. By taking out the profit motive, we can decrease rents by 43-49%."
Janice Abbott mirrored this sentiment by expressing how, "It’s not a supply challenge, it’s a subsidy or investment challenge on the part of the government.” She explained how even housing that requires no mortgage, still requires an ongoing subsidy in order to maintain low and moderate rents. "That’s who is mostly, not surprisingly, priced out of the housing market--- women and children who can afford to pay low and moderate rents.”
All this to say that the housing crisis is undoubtedly a direct result of viewing housing as an investment, rather than the human right that it has been laid out as in the UN Human Rights Resolution.
Dreaming about an equitable future for housing.
Tesicca then urged panelists to envision a world where all of their advocacy efforts came to fruition. In other words, what would a truly equitable housing system look like?
Indigenous activist Ginger Gosnell-Myers stressed the importance of reconciliation and giving the land back to First Nations peoples. She explained how, "Land should be a right for First Nations, because when it’s in our hands we will ensure that housing is a right. Right now, if there’s no land back there’s no housing that can be determined as a right either. We’re not interested in selling the land, interested in holding it in trust for future generations.”
The other panelists mirrored this emphasis on alternative models of ownership, particularly those created by Indigenous peoples. Sara Sagaii pointed out that, "Being able to define a model with collective ownership, collective control, and dignity is really important as a vision to work towards."
Janice Abbott agreed that our current framework for housing has failed us and that in addition to looking at other models that when we're talking about housing for women we have to keep in mind the greater picture. We need to consider schools, transit, public pools, and outdoor community spaces. She stated, "Good adequate safe housing for women requires spaces in the public realm that are vibrant and accessible to people of all incomes. That includes places for coffee and breakfast and what not so that women can actually engage in their communities.”
Samantha Pranteau stressed the need for increased tenant empowerment saying, "there should be tenant committees in every unit." A tenant committee is essentially a group of those that live within a building, or a block, or a community who gather to discuss things like rent, building updates, eviction notices, etc. If more people started organizing just within their own buildings, we could increase the knowledge spread, empowering more folks to advocate for their rights as tenants. This would decrease the power gap between landlords and tenants and was laid out as one of the first steps of community organizing.
Current roadblocks to that future.
The next part of the discussion was focused on the current barriers that are preventing those dream futures from taking place. An overwhelming theme was a lack of federal funding on moderate to low income housing and follow through from politicians to actually implement positive policy changes.
We could summarize the current roadblocks as these three things:
We need more money spent on housing. There's a lack of federal funding and too many gaps between the municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdictions.
The political will on behalf of politicians to push towards a different housing model, that would interfere with the current housing profits. One that eliminates rent evictions by creating a strict rent control that won't price vulnerable populations out of their human right to safe housing.
A lack of enforcement of the current tenant protections in place.
One of the most enlightening parts of the discussion were the closing remarks on what we can actually do, both individually and collectively, to solve this housing crisis. At the worst of times we are fed up with having the same conversations and nothing changing, but there is hope. You can start small, by organizing your building, and build towards influencing more permanent policy changes. As we know, it’s all about grassroot organizing.
As Samantha Pranteau brilliantly put it, “I really believe that mobilization can affect policy, especially when we are including those that are affected the most.” She urged us to, "[Hear] from the communities that this is affecting most through storytelling and finding creative ways to share experience, knowledge, and skill."
Sara Sagaii inspired us to start small and start now. “Start organizing your building, for your block. Start getting to know your neighbors. Any step in that direction will have massive rewards, if anything ever happens.