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Archive for November 11th, 2008


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When I was at LSE – in the early seventies – there was a distinct choice in which economics seminars one attended as a planning student. Housing or transport. And of course I chose the latter. But housing is what is top of mind right now.

Gordon Campbell has suddenly decided that building houses should be part of the stimulus package to paid for (partly) by the feds. He says he raised it with Harper at the meeting yesterday. It wasn’t in the list of things he talked about last month.

“There are literally hundreds of thousands of construction workers across the country who we want to keep at work,” Campbell said after a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders.

“Housing to meet the challenges of an aging population, to meet the challenges of homelessness, and to meet the challenges of first nations communities would be a very strong economic package that we could put together.”

The NDP are accusing him of stealing the idea from Carole James – but no-one owns ideas. And it could be that he has realised that accelerating transportation projects (that means roads of course) is not as easy as he thought last month, and also that the housing slow down doesn’t necessarily release resources useful to road builders (as I pointed out here recently). But note too Campbell’s sudden awareness of social problems that have been around all though his long term of office and which have not got much better while he has been Premier.

Homelessness is, of course, back on the agenda locally too. Peter Ladner and Michael Geller were out in the downtown eastside yesterday – and being given a rough time. McMartin has now become frankly partisan – and works in the False Creek affair with accusations of “doltish” behaviour. While Gary Mason continues on the other side with more focus on what the Finance Office thought – and why it cost her her job.

But to get back to the homeless, Michael Geller wants to consider the use of portable buildings to provide shelter, though of a much more generous kind than the mini-houses on show at Granville Island recently. Currently the accommodation that is offered to the homeless is minimal. Most are beds – sometimes simply a mattress on a floor – with no privacy or security for what little possessions they have. And they are only for the night – not shelter in the daytime which other places might provide. The other main offering is a single occupancy room in a cheap hotel. Even then, the allowance provided by welfare may not be enough to cover the cost, but the Catch 22 is that to claim welfare you have to have an address. Now compared to those choices, the idea of a room in a portakabin does sound better. But it is not nearly good enough.

I have admitted at the top of this piece that I am not any kind of expert in this area, but I feel distinctly ill at ease with the way this problem is being discussed – one cannot use the words “dealt with” since it isn’t being – and hasn’t been for a long time. Official policies towards poverty and housing shifted some time ago as part of the “common sense revolution” – or Thatcherism – or whatever the local slogan was at the time. The welfare state that had arisen after the second world war was mainly driven by the perception that we could have done better in the thirties if we had used the techniques and resources that the state had devoted to licking Hitler. Ideas about the effectiveness of strategic planning and operational research, and the use of public funds to tackle what had been hitherto largely ignored as private responsibilities, were widespread. But with the Chicago boys and the rise of what is now called “neo-conservatism” all that was swept away. The advocates liked to claim that public sector provision of health, housing and transport had “failed”, but an objective assessment finds that is false. There is also now no doubt at all that tax cuts for the wealthy do not “trickle down”, that closing hospital beds does not really help the mentally ill, and that selling off public housing (as was done in Britain) or just stopping programmes of housing provision (as done here)  is not a solution, just a way of appearing to “balance the books” as though that were a more important criterion than ensuring decent accomodation for all citizens.

Most of the right wing rhetoric praised the private sector, and sought to free it from regulation. This also spilled over into housing, as though landlords had somehow suddenly changed the way they had behaved for centuries. And of course the evidence that the private sector only cares about profits and not about the impacts of its decisions on society had to be relearned and very painfully by those least able to defend themselves. Not that public sector “hand outs” were ended. It was just that government was told to stop giving money to poor people so that more could be given to the wealthy. And, amazingly enough, all sorts of intellectuals seemd to come out with elegant theories about why this was a Good Thing, instead of counter intuitive. Or irredeemably stupid.

The housing crisis in Canada – and that is what it is – is the creation of government. It has been getting steadily worse. And we do not need just minor band aids like the ability to thow up some temporary shelters on currently vacant land. Though, as with all crises, first aid is necessary, it is not at all sufficient. Gordon Campbell (and Stephen Harper too) may well see this as an opportunity to be seen to be doing something about the current economic downturn. But as he made quite clear last night on a CBC News at 6 live interview, Campbell really does not get it. He is still saying that he will not consider going into deficit. Once again, book keeping is more important than people. He and Kevin Falcon may be thought to be sounding like Keynesians, but they are not.

The measure of a society is how it takes care of its most vulnerable members. We – Canada, BC, our municipalities – have little to be proud of on that score. And in order to bring about change we must first address where we went wrong. Deficit spending is not always the right response either, as George W Bush has so ably demonstrated. But the good news is, if we start to change fundamentally the way we approach most policy problems, and recognize that the private sector model has not worked very well either, then some kind of synthesis can emerge. That would be one that recognizes that we can make value judgements: indeed we must recognise that we always do and that the problem arise only when we pretend to be “businesslike”. The long term health and well being of the people who live here are legitimate concerns for our governments. As is the ability of the human race to continue to live on this planet. The constant blether from the right about the need to prop up failing businesses, and remove restraints on their ability to destroy the environment has to stop.

We need to get ourselves organised, just was we did in 1939. This is Remembrance Day. And while others seem to think that means an opportunity for marches and the display of medals, I think we need to remember how we got behind the idea of saving the world from fascism. The threat we face now is even bigger. And the threat is ourselves. Our consumption. Our preference for putting ourselves and our comfort and convenience ahead of everything else. Something that we have been postively encouraged to do. Did we really think that the best response to 9/11 was to go shopping?

In the field of housing, that means we need to relearn the lessons of what worked and what didn’t. Some examples are still around. Little Mountain is, of course, being wrecked even as I write. But the develoment around South False Creek near Granville Island is still there. There are plenty of co-ops and a few co-housing  schemes we can look at as good examples. There is even the example of the use of mandatory percentages of affordable housing in private sector developments, which seem to be common in the US but not done here very much as far as I know. And of course this housing needs to be permanent and well built, decently planned around the needs of people, not motor cars. It needs to be well insulated, and have much less need for fossil fueled energy. It needs to be in mixed use, mixed income, walkable neighborhoods. We know how to do that. It does need a lot of experimentation or demonstration projects. It just needs the political will to get going on a comprehensive plan – and that includes implementation. Delivery of decent, affordable housing in large numbers as an investment in a better future. For everyone.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 11, 2008 at 10:36 am

Posted in housing, Urban Planning