Confronting the Vancouver Housing Crisis
Kurtis is a former Regent student who received a PhD in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies from the University of Edinburgh. He currently lives in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood of East Vancouver with his wife and two children. He teaches at UBC as well as at Columbia Bible College. He also organizes for social justice with the faith-based group Streams of Justice. Among all these he finds himself an amateur gardener, fermenter, and urban homesteader.
Getting beyond charity in our quest for housing justice
Today, we speak of a housing crisis in Metro Vancouver. But what we fail to realize is that we have had a housing crisis for a very long time—for decades, in fact. With the end of the federal government’s national housing strategy in the mid-90s, new social housing is rarely built. Housing is often announced, as happened in the lead-up to the Olympic games, but financial considerations end up edging out social and affordable housing in favour of higher revenue options. Therefore, the number of people living on Vancouver’s streets or staying in temporary shelters has risen considerably. The annual Vancouver homeless count, with data from 2005 to present, tells us that the bottom dropped out of our housing market long ago. These counts give us a snapshot of only the most visible victims of our systemic housing woes, the tip of the iceberg. Just below the surface are the hidden homeless—those who couch surf, stay with others in overcrowded places, sleep in cars, stay with partners even if it is not safe, etc. This group is hard to count, of course, but there are estimates. In some communities, this is the majority of the homeless. Then there is the largest group: those who pay more than 30% of their income (often more than 50%) on rent. These are precariously housed folks who are highly vulnerable to homelessness through loss of jobs, personal or family crises, etc.
But all this is nothing new. Why, then, has housing become the hot-button issue only in the last few years? Apparently, it’s just that now the floodwaters of the crisis are beginning to rise even to the middle and upper-middle classes. Because it has reached these higher income earners, quite often “housing crisis” in our public discourse is synonymous with the inability to purchase a million-dollar home. True, that is an absurd cost for a home, but just imagine what it is like, and has been like, for those with lesser means. With a rental unit vacancy rate of about half of one percent, and the dirtiest, most uninhabitable rental units going for around $500/mo (housing allowance for welfare recipients is $375/mo), we have a real humanitarian crisis. Add to that the rapid gentrification of the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown, thanks to the city’s rezoning grants and lack of enforcement on maintenance bylaws, and there is nowhere left to go for our sisters and brothers. Is this the kind of city we want? Is this the kind of community advocated in our biblical text?
“Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”(Isaiah 5:8 NRSV). The prophetic voice in our biblical tradition allows for no ambiguity. Those who take more than they need at the expense of others, those who gather up the means of livelihood, security, and housing, are vehemently denounced. What would such a voice say now to the large aggressive developers gentrifying the DTES, Chinatown, Metrotown, etc., or to the governments whose policies allow or encourage them, or to the speculative housing market at large? What would it say to those of us in the middle class, who are fed the narrative that we must own property in order to be happy, to have status, to feel secure. We invest or seek to invest in property because the market is hot. But even the middle class is now struggling to achieve this “dream” and so the city is being vacated. The middle class is leaving. If the trend were to continue, Vancouver would be left with the very rich who can afford it, and the very poor, who can’t afford to move. Is this the biblical vision?
Perhaps more intriguing yet, what would the words of the Jubilee mean for the church in the midst of our housing crisis today? “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. … The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land”(Lev 25:10, 23–24 NRSV).
Our Christian tradition has given us a unique vision, one that insists
on the flourishing of all. And at the root of this vision is the notion that
our God is a God who liberates captives, cares for all creation, and will not
tolerate injustice. Note that the Jubilee passage does much more than ask the
Israelites to, of their own good will, give to the poor. No, instead it demands
a radical reorientation of society that redistributes wealth and refuses to
alienate anyone from it. Today our churches largely operate out of a stopgap
model, directly helping the vulnerable in their immediate situation. We must do
this. At the same time surely we must be
aware that we have not seen our city’s housing situation improve—those in need
here are in greater numbers than any time in recent history. We must,
therefore, address the reasons for this growth. This is what seeking systemic
justice looks like. It means challenging powerful institutions, public and
private, that are more interested in serving the market (incentivizing
development, etc.) than the people. Market solutions that cut social services
(welfare, new social housing, etc.) are punishing the most vulnerable—those who
come to our soup kitchens, sleep in our shelters, clean our homes, care for our
Even “solutions” like rental subsidies for low-income people only serve to entrench the status quo; the subsidy logic maintains that the problem must be the renter, who needs help. Meanwhile, landlords can continue to raise rent so long as the government keeps handing out subsidies to the renters. Likewise, shelters and food banks may help the immediate need, but if we see a growth in those who use them, we should not celebrate, we should lament! What if we created a city where such services were needless? The church, with the potential to be a modern prophet, must cry out in response to our crisis with the vision of the Jubilee: “Our systems are not working for the flourishing of all!”
So when we who are only now feeling the effect of the crisis cry out at the pain we feel, praying for God to act on our behalf, let the words of Isaiah 58 ring in our ears:
“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am…” (Isa 58:5–9 NRSV).
The pain of the middle-class is not imagined. Such people, as with everyone else, should be able to feel secure in their housing situation. But what Isaiah 58 tells us is that we must move beyond lamenting only our own difficulties, in order both to help those who are in need and to rework the systems that oppress people in the first place.
What does it look like to do this kind of justice work? So far, the majority of the Church’s responses have been motivated by surviving the housing crisis. Perhaps, rather than merely surviving the crisis, we ought to work to solve it and mitigate the harm it is doing to those most vulnerable in our city. This may mean interesting projects to offer housing to the poor in our midst. Such projects may help those in their immediate need, offering them good and meaningful housing, as well as implicitly challenge the status quo of the standard soup-kitchen approach to poverty.That’s the kind of work the Church has been doing well and ought to continue doing. Like Isaiah 5 above suggests, we must also begin to explore our prophetic voice. We must acknowledge that this housing crisis is not just for the middle-class. In fact, we must make it routine for us to acknowledge that this housing crisis is taking place on the unceded territories of indigenous peoples—those who have faced this area’s original land displacement. We should probably show up at the doors of government, clear our prophetic throats and start naming the policies allowing the housing crisis to continue unabated. And we may just need to say “no more” to developers building properties aimed at investment and speculation meanwhile displacing vulnerable people.
We probably need to exercise all these options, doing so with clear eyes and keen vision, invigorated by our God and Saviour, who points to a different, heavenly reality:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also”(John 14:1 NRSV).
The reality of Christ is one of welcome and inclusion. May that reality come on earth as it is in heaven. May the Church refuse to let our city go the way of exclusionary profit. May we instead humbly reflect the light of Christ and work to make this a city where all are adequately housed and all may flourish.