Op-Ed by Maya Russell, Vancouver Sun, February 20 (with reference to BCNPHA)
My friend Jana has kidney disease. She lives in a tiny, one-room basement suite in my city of New Westminster, by the grace of an old friend who rents the rest of the house. On her disability income she can just afford this small piece of independence. At 500 square feet under a six-foot ceiling, it’s hardly a luxury. Their landlord recently broke some heart-wrenching news — the house is going on the market. Jana needs access to kidney dialysis three days a week and is looking for where she can possibly afford to live, and still get to the treatments that keep her alive. It’s a terrifying prospect.
My friend Paula lives with three children in a tiny suite. It’s not enough room for her growing kids, but moving is not an option — she needs this housing. In this rental market, the idea of safe, adequate, affordable housing for their family is a cruel joke. The three kids are sharing a bedroom. It’s not just for a few weeks — not a tough spell while mom gets things sorted out — it’s their entire childhood. And there’s no end in sight.
While I spend a sunny weekend planting kale in my front yard, I’d do well to remember these neighbours, and that the housing affordability crisis is not over. We all would.
While the province has made strides building affordable housing, we are still falling behind. The B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association noted during the provincial election campaign that for every affordable home being built, we are losing three low-cost rental units.
Leaders are talking bold action. John Horgan’s NDP government is spending $1.9 billion over 10 years to build more than 14,000 affordable units. In Vancouver last fall, Mayor Kennedy Stewart proposed an ambitious plan to put home ownership within reach, allowing up to four homes on a single lot. The plan was defeated by council with process arguments from the Green Party and land-value angst from the NPA. This is just one example of how political will for affordable housing is a rarity.
It’s rare because we have inherited a local government system that is stacked against those seeking housing, and weighted heavily in favour of homeowners. We’ve seen over decades of housing approval hearings that homeowners have a predictable reaction to those less fortunate. For example, while my friend Paula’s kids grow up in inadequate housing and Jana lies awake at night worrying about where she will live next, homeowners in my community are driving door-to-door with a petition against an affordable housing proposal on a busy street.
It’s a reasonable proposal to add 95 affordable one-, two- and three-bedroom units for Indigenous people and those of Swahili descent. The organizers of the petition against the proposal express horror at its six storeys, while noting they also drove off the city’s more modest proposal for townhome rezoning four years ago.
Opponents also make the alarming statement that only property owners should have a say. Let’s be clear, it’s been a full hundred years since the Dominion Elections Act ended the practice of restricting voting to property owners. In my city, that would disenfranchise almost half of the residents who are renters.
And the underlying racism toward Indigenous and Black residents is particularly hard to miss, when the objections unravel to “shadows” the building is feared to cast on neighbouring lots. (It won’t.) But while there are some particularly ridiculous claims around this development, in general the homeowner reaction is boilerplate. Homeowners are stridently entitled and indignant about changes to single-family neighbourhoods and fearful of poor, racialized people moving in. Anyone who disagrees with them is met with disgust because “you don’t live here.” The arguments are always the same: not enough consultation, not the right spot for those being housed, not far enough away, not a fit for the neighbourhood character.
Homeowners rattle their pitchforks, and city councils are too easily cowed.
I’ve seen it too many times, and I’m sick of it. We need to cut the crap. Let’s stop allowing a few blocks of homeowners to hold hostage entire communities that need to find room for everyone.
The province’s expert panel on the future of housing supply and affordability notes the slow pace of progress with alarm, and the urgent need to get things built faster. They name the obstacle: “The land-use planning system stifles new housing supply in two ways: first by restricting growth through lengthy, uncertain and costly processes, and second by allowing anti-development interests to apply political pressure on decision makers.”
The expert panel put forward many recommendations to pick up the pace. Here’s my favourite: “The province can also streamline the approvals process by adapting the recommendations of the Development Approvals Process Review and by reducing the requirements for public hearings during individual project re-zonings.”
I’d go further and suggest, in a housing affordability crisis, it’s time to exempt affordable housing from this process altogether. In what moral universe should we prioritize the preferences of the home-owning housed ahead of the basic needs of those who are un-housed and under-housed?
It’s a matter of human rights. The Ontario Human Rights Commission identified NIMBY opposition to housing as a human rights issue years ago. While B.C.’s 2019 Development Approvals Process Review meticulously catalogued barriers to housing, it falls short of naming the human rights issue at play: leaving housing at the mercy of NIMBY neighbours is discriminatory.
We need to rebalance this equation and take away the extraordinary power homeowners have over their lesser-housed neighbours. For Jana, Paula and her kids, and thousands of others, let’s remove one barrier to help clear the way for the homes we need in B.C.
Maya Russell is a homeowner and elected school trustee in New Westminster.