Housing is a human right, but the government isn't treating it that way
Evictions across Canada, says Matthew Green, show the urgent need to fix the housing crisis
Matthew Green is a community organizer and city councillor who represents Ward 3 in Hamilton, Ont.'s central lower city. He also sits on the board of CityHousing Hamilton, the city's largest social housing provider.
As a Hamilton Centre city councillor, no phone call is more difficult to take than that of a resident facing imminent eviction.
The conversation typically begins with the frantic description of the notice they have been served by their landlord, formatted in a terminology that is difficult for most to understand, and which spells out the legal dispossession of their home. There is a panic in their voice, having likely exhausted all of their calls to family and personal friends and having no one else left to turn to.
Witnessing Canada's national housing crisis unfold in the day-to-day lives of my neighbours is the most haunting aspect of my work. I am forced to explain to them the very real likelihood of being turned away from our emergency shelters system and that the waiting list for Hamilton city housing is climbing past 7,000 people, or the five to seven years to actually get into one of our city's social housing units knowing that they very well may end up on the streets. The stress of not knowing where you and your family will be sleeping in a few nights is a pressure that no person living in this country should ever have to face.
In Ontario, these eviction notices are filed at the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board for reasons ranging from an individual's nonpayment of rent (which for low- and fixed-income folks in my hometown of Hamilton and across Ontario can be for any range of reasons), to the proposed demolition of the building itself. The latter notice was recently used by a company called Timbercreek to evict en masse the residents of the Heron Gate community in Ottawa in order to make way for a new development.
Recently, I attended a rally in front of Hamilton's Landlord Tenant Board in support of local residents participating in the Stoney Creek Towers Rent Strike. The strike began on May 1, and has been in direct response to an application by the InterRent Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) for an above-guideline rent increase. If their application is successful, the consequence will be the displacement of many long-standing residents from their homes.
With municipal revenue streams limited to property taxes, building permits, and development charges, cities of all sizes are fueled by the so-called "economic uplift" of forced real estate appreciation. Whether turning over rental units one by one to push profits, or the wholesale displacements of entire low income communities, this process is textbook gentrification as prescribed by developers, urban planners and — yes — by city councils. With all the talk of Hamilton's growing prosperity and economic growth, so too grows the income divide as the prosperity of rapid urbanization seems to only benefit the corporate developer and banking class while everyone else is left out in the economic cold.
That is why recognizing housing as a fundamental human right is more urgent than ever. In the midst of this affordable housing crisis, we should all take seriously the words of concern expressed by UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, regarding the gaps in the federal government's national housing strategy.
In her recent letter to the government, Farha rightly criticized the Trudeau Liberals for their decision to back-track on recognizing the right to housing in their forthcoming legislation. She stressed that using the language of "rights" when discussing housing is not just a matter of semantics. By not asserting this right, she argues, "it will not ensure access to effective remedies through which rights holders may hold the government accountable to the obligation to progressively realize this right."
For some of Farha's critics, to assert the right to housing means turning the search for a home into a search for a lawyer. It means turning a practical conversation about policy and outcomes into one about abstract universal principles with no real-world consequences.
While these dismissals of Farha may be cynical, they unintentionally reveal something more fundamental about the liberalization of our housing system. Namely, that we cannot demand the right to housing without fundamentally overhauling the housing system as it exists today. The "right to housing" poses a challenge to the commodification of housing, and demands that we view housing as a function of our basic human needs.
I believe that the right to housing is an ethical demand that points us toward a more just future. A future where long-time tenants can no longer be displaced from their homes by landlords seeking above-guideline rent increases, and a future where whole communities can no longer be demolished in order to bring in more profitable tenants. What we need now is an immediate federal intervention for direct investment in the market that goes beyond the publicly funded infrastructure bank, which only serves to subsidizes private corporations and developers with billions of taxpayer dollars.
What residents in Canada need is a radical investment into social housing units for our most vulnerable from the core of our urban centres to the the Indigenous and Inuit territories throughout the country. A $40-billion announcement with dollars promised in some distant political tomorrow does nothing for the tens of thousands of people facing precarious housing conditions and homelessness today.
What residents in Canada deserve is a housing strategy that makes predatory developers enriching themselves through the displacement of others a problem of the past. Until that day comes, we must keep demanding: housing is a human right.