Vancouver's housing crisis has never been worse. That's not just a turn of phrase -- 2014 marks the largest homeless population ever recorded in the city's history.
The latest homeless count recorded 2,770 street homeless in Metro Vancouver. A total of 1,798 people were recorded homeless in the City of Vancouver alone, a 249 per cent increase since the last regional count in 2011. And while the number is high, it likely underestimates the real homelessness numbers. For the past couple of years, the annual homelessness count has been conducted a week or two before the closure of the annual winter shelters, which means that the count misses the actual number of people who live on the streets for the large majority of the year.
Like hundreds of others across Vancouver, we are marching this Saturday to end homelessness. But homelessness is only the most extreme expression of the housing crisis in our city. Today thousands of people live in precarious and inadequate housing, sleeping on couches or staying with abusive partners. Thousands more live in overcrowded, unhealthy and substandard apartments, on the brink of homelessness and living month-to-month, anticipating the next eviction notice.
To make matters worse, vacancy rates and the construction of affordable housing are at historic lows in the city of Vancouver, while the number of residential demolitions are at a 10 year high. A full third of renters are today living in "core need" according to Metro Vancouver, which means living in inadequate housing due to the condition of the unit, the size of the unit, or the cost of the unit.
Present crises, uneven crisis
While the crisis is city-wide, the effects of the housing crisis are uneven. A third of the homeless population in Metro Vancouver is Indigenous despite making up only 2 per cent of the total population. The number of Indigenous people on the streets is also rising faster than than any other group in Vancouver.
Among households living in core need in the City of Vancouver, over 48 per cent have an immigrant head of the household. According to a 2011 Metropolis BC report, new refugees and immigrants are disproportionately suffering from inadequate and overcrowded housing conditions. All signs indicate that these inequities will be exacerbated as state-led gentrification pushes rent up in low-income and racialized neighbourhoods -- rental neighbourhoods like Mount Pleasant, Grandview Woodland, Commercial Drive, Norquay and the Downtown Eastside.
Meanwhile statistics from the DTES capture the disastrous consequences of gentrification for low-income neighbourhoods. According to an impact study conducted by the City of Vancouver, the percentage of private SROs renting at the affordable shelter rate fell to 27 per cent in 2011, from 39 per cent in 2009 and 67 per cent in 2007.
The expiry of operating agreements
The housing crisis in Vancouver is already dire, but the affordable housing stock is facing even more strain with the expected mass expiration of funding for existing non-profit, co-op and social housing. Over 25,000 non-profit and social housing units in Greater Vancouver are set to have their funding cut by the year 2033. The majority of that housing -- 17,000 units -- is located in the City of Vancouver.
The expiry of housing agreements and the subsequent end to federal funding is a process that has already begun to unfold. To compensate for the loss funding, many co-ops and non-profits, including Lions Manor, Heather Place, Chau Luen, and Lori Krill -- to mention just a few in Vancouver -- are making the decision to drastically increase their rents and replace low-income renters with new middle-class residents.
Although some providers will be "viable" after their expiration date, partly because they have already undergone harsh neoliberal reforms, the upcoming shift will hit low-income earners the hardest. Housing providers who are found least likely to be viable post-funding are precisely those who currently house the highest proportion of low-income and precarious households. For example, in Steve Pomeroy's 2006 study of the impacts of the expiring agreements in Canada found that the Urban Native housing projects in northeastern Vancouver (450 units) are among those least likely to be viable after expiry. The report concludes that unless these projects are provided with extended funding, "many low income urban aboriginal household will be displaced, and potentially made homeless."
Over the next 20 years, 99 per cent of operating agreements across the country will have expired if current austerity measures are not reversed, amounting to $3.5 billion of reduced government expenditures annually. Presently there are no federal or provincial plans to initiate new or extend existing operating agreements. The forecasted federal funding for non-profit housing providers in B.C. for the year 2030 is zero.
Vision Vancouver playing games with homelessness
In a situation like this you would expect local governments to take all protective measures to ensure that existing affordable housing is not lost. All too many of us in 2008 and 2011 expected a progressive government to compensate for federal and provincial austerity and tax cuts by putting a real effort into municipal spending for housing, and by actively fighting back against the cuts.
Yet, the only department to receive spending increases under Vision Vancouver has been the police, which receives $50million more per year than it did in 2008. By 2011, the City of Vancouver had the third highest police budget in Canada, despite being the eighth largest municipality in Canada. In this context, the goals of "ending homelessness" takes on a cynical new meaning.
In 2008 Gregor Robertson ran a mayoral campaign built on the promise to end homelessness by 2015. Soon after being elected Mayor Robertson altered the promise to ending "street homelessness." Now he's claiming that neither homelessness nor street homeless are within his jurisdiction.
The Vision government has used homelessness as a political tool to win the hearts of Vancouverites, renters, and low-income people across the city, while pushing forward the very policies that make the situation worse. When the masses of people took their chances with Vision, they were not expecting a corporate agenda of developer tax exemptions, state led gentrification, and the accelerated demolition and redevelopment of social housing.
Housing and colonialism: The housing crisis is a social crisis
While it may seem counter-intuitive to many people who have stable housing or other forms of unnoticed, everyday privilege, homelessness cannot be grasped as solely a housing problem. It has to be understood in the context of larger forces and cycles of displacement. The story of Peter Deranger, who ended up homeless in the DTES and was one of many protesters at the 2010 Olympic Tent Village, highlights the intimate links between resource exploitation, colonialism and the housing crisis in Vancouver.
Peter is a traditional Dene elder who grew up in the 1940s within the land of Treaty 8, spanning Northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. As a youth, Peter was displaced by the uranium mines used to supply the atomic bombs that would destroy Nagasaki in 1945. Since then, he's been displaced from his lands continually -- once by the tar sands of Fort McMurray, once in the 1970s by the uranium industry of Northern Saskatchewan, and once again by the wildlife extinction caused by the development of the W.A.C. Bennett hydroelectric dam in Northern British Columbia.
"I can't go back to my traditional hunting ground," says Peter. "If I want a decent house and a decent living [there], I have to be a corporate slave and work for the people who destroy my own land. So I've decided to become a refugee, to come to the Downtown Eastside, to live with my people."
Peter's story is typical for many of the Indigenous people who end up on the streets of Vancouver. Displacement is a systemic process caused by resource extraction, but also an interlocking system of colonialism, of which residential schools and poverty on reserves also play a crucial part. It is therefore impossible to consider the housing crisis without also critiquing the larger social crisis. We live under a system that today merges of the oldest and most oppressive parts of colonialism with the newest forms of capitalism. A system that privatizes and expropriates the land in order to prioritize profit over homes and well-being. This is why the housing crisis is about land.
Tomorrow we will be marching in solidarity with organizers and residents of the Oppenheimer Park Tent City, who have been standing their ground for several days. In the powerful words of Stella August, "This is Indian land and we have every right to be on this land… it's legal for people and all walks of life."
Tomorrow's march will start in the Downtown Eastside but end outside the neighborhood, because evictions are evictions wherever you live in the city. The social and economic forces -- capitalism, colonialism, racism -- that shape our city touch all corners of the city. By calling for a city-wide march, DTES organizers are leading the struggle for better housing. In the words of Tracey Morrison, a VANDU member and one of the organizers of the march, "this march is not just for the DTES, but for everyone who needs housing."
City-Wide Housing March
Saturday July 26, 1 p.m.
Meet at Main & Hastings / Pantages
Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish territories
The event will start at Main & Hastings, march down Main Street and cross through the Olympic Village, and end at City Hall. Speakers include:
Kelvin Bee (Aboriginal Front Door)
Dalannah Gail Bowen (Aboriginal Front Door)
Stella August (Oppenheimer Park Tent City & POW)
Samona Marsh (VANDU)
King-mong Chan (CCAP & Chinatown tenant organizer)
Wilson Leung (Chinatown resident)
Qara Maristella (Philippine Women Centre)
Tracey Morrison (WAHRS & VANDU)
Garth Mullins (Our Community Our Plan! – Grandview-Woodlands)
Formerly Homeless Dave
Blair Hewitt (DTES United)
Byron Cruz (Sanctuary Health)
Karen Ward (Gallery Gachet)
Aiyanas Ormond (VANDU & Alliance for People’s Health)
Join facebook event here
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