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Building Housing Insecurity

Austerity policies have fueled homelessness and precarious housing for 30 years

by Harsha Walia

Organized through the hashtag #donthave1million, several hundred Vancouverites took to the streets recently to express their anger at just how unaffordable housing has become in the world’s second most unaffordable housing market. Unlike ongoing anti-gentrification protests in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, most of the people at this rally were part of the middle class, upset at their unexpected inability to buy a house or condo in a city where the average price of a “single-family dwelling” has climbed to $1.27 million.

Given that Canada has successfully branded itself as a Western liberal democracy that is not as socially punitive as the United States, it may surprise many Canadians to learn that almost one in five renting households in the country experience extreme housing unaffordability. Or that people in Canada spend a larger percentage of their income on housing than almost anyone else on the planet. Or that at least 35,000 people in Canada are homeless every night.

This housing insecurity is not inevitable; it was created by austerity policies that have steadily eroded funding for social housing while incentivizing private ownership and privileging market forces. This is emblematic of the political economy of austerity that operates within capitalism and colonialism to widen the wealth gap and increase the social, economic and political inequality of marginalized communities.

Austerity is not new when it comes to housing policies in Canada. While the current federal Conservative government has accelerated privatization, deregulation and federal cuts to social spending for housing really began in the 1980s. Under Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, federal funding for affordable housing and co-ops began to dwindle, and then in 1993 Liberal minister of finance Paul Martin cancelled all federal funding for new social housing.

A 2014 report by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness estimates that due to those cuts and cancellations, 100,000 units of social housing have not been built in the past 20 years, despite a population increase of more than 30 per cent. During the same period, federal spending on housing dropped by more than 46 per cent and per capita spending on housing declined from $115 per person to $60.

This loss of public housing is only expected to accelerate over the next few decades. According to a recent report by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, federal funding for housing initiatives has been cut by more than 30 per cent over the past few years. By next year, the number of households assisted by federal housing programs will drop by another 100,000 households and the federal Affordable Housing Initiative will be eliminated entirely. It is estimated that by next year, the combined cuts to federal housing spending since 2010 will total almost $2 billion, representing a cut of more than 50 per cent in just six years.

As affordable housing activist Maria Wallstam extrapolates, “By 2033, 99% of [social housing] 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.” This will impact 365,000 households and paves the way for capitalist forces to further control social housing stock. It also pressures non-profit housing operators to enter into public–private partnerships to build and operate any new social housing.

Against this backdrop of federal cuts are local government austerity policies and city planning policies—implemented through a bureaucratic matrix of urban development plans and zoning bylaws—that further privilege housing as a commodity rather than a human right.

In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest urban postal codes in the country, the development of market housing outpaces social housing that people on welfare rates can afford by a rate of eight to one. The Carnegie Community Action Project estimates that in neighbouring Chinatown there is only one unit of low-income housing being built for every 71 units of unaffordable housing and condo units.

Vancouver’s development-backed Vision mayor and council incentivize this gentrification and capitalist accumulation. As austerity policies cause public disinvestment from public housing and social services, zoning policies allow private capital to develop low-income neighbourhoods with a high return on profit. Tax benefits for real estate developers further encourage “upscale” development. For example, two of BC’s richest billionaires received tax exemptions ranging from three to ten years for their investment in the Woodwards condo project in the Downtown Eastside.

Cuts to public housing are consistent with austerity policies also affecting social assistance, employment insurance and pension rates, as well as stagnant wages and declining access to affordable childcare, healthcare and education for families. Meanwhile, richer homeowners in Canada are granted $8.6 billion in annual tax breaks and other benefits, and real estate developers are given tax exemptions. As a result, poor and low-income people, single mothers, recent immigrants, Indigenous people on and off-reserve and seniors have become even more vulnerable to cycles of precarious housing or homelessness.

The fights against austerity, against cuts to social housing and against gentrification are all connected. They are ultimately struggles against the colonial state and capital’s ability to commodify housing and land.

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