Updated – Signs That COVID Sustains Historic Discrimination

COVID means more tenants are not paying rent. Small landlords are feeling the pinch.

Elijah de la Campa, a senior research associate in Economics and Urban Analytics at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, has teamed up with others to expand on earlier research about how the pandemic is affecting landlords.

The results this time are from a survey of over 4,700 landlords with small and large holdings in 10 cities. The questions investigate the level of arrears, and whether landlords are managing their buildings differently during COVID. It investigates differences in management practices between neighbourhoods with higher and lower incomes. It also investigates differences between neighbourhoods that are predominantly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) and those that are predominantly White.

The analysis identifies a number of issues. For example, landlords in predominantly BIPOC neighbourhoods are more likely to have listed their properties for sale. The same landlords are also more likely to have initiated evictions. The sample is not representative of the U.S. as a whole, but as the authors point out, it does suggest that patterns of discrimination are being exacerbated.

You can read more about the research and results at the Joint Center For Housing Studies: How Are Landlords Faring During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Below: Our post discussing de la Campa’s earlier survey of landlords in Albany and Rochester.


Elijah de la Campa has done some interesting research about rental arrears among small landlords during COVID. He used racial characteristics of neighbourhoods to make comparisons about the extent of rental arrears and strategies the landlords used to manage the arrears.

De la Campa is a senior research associate in Economics and Urban Analytics at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. He interviewed landlords in two cities in New York state: Albany and Rochester. The landlords owned no more than three buildings. The interviews took place in June and October 2020.

He found that all landlords were experiencing higher levels of arrears in 2020 than in the same period during 2019. Landlords with housing in predominately white neighbourhoods reported an 80% increase in arrears in June 2020 compared to June 2019. By October, 2020, the difference was less, just 30% higher than in October, 2019. But it was still an increase.

Landlords with housing in predominantly black neighbourhoods reported a 72% increase in June 2020 compared to 2019. By October, the difference had risen to a 101% increase over the same month of the previous year.

De la Campa found that there were differences in the way that arrears were managed between landlords in the predominantly white and predominantly black neighbourhoods. In white dominant areas, 22% of landlords had reduced rents for their tenants.

In black dominated areas, less than 1% of landlords had taken this step. With respect to evictions, 12% of landlords had taken steps to evict tenants in black dominant neighbourhoods. In white dominated neighbourhoods, 6% of landlords had done so.

De la Campa’s findings indicate that COVID has contributed to a high level of financial stress amongst small landlords, which is directly linked to the housing and financial stress of their tenants. At this scale, his findings certainly suggest that an arrears bailout would contribute to financial and housing stability for both the landlords and the tenants.

The findings will be of interest to advocates and policy makers and decision makers who are focused on building a COVID recovery strategy that helps people who are most vulnerable. The research method will also be interesting for people studying systemic discrimination. Read more about de la Campa’s work at Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies: The Impact of COVID-19 on Small Landlords in Albany and Rochester, New York

Squeaky Wheel/Diplomat: What Is Needed For A Public Housing Voice

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Friendship Court, a public housing project in Charlottesville, Virginia, with high electricity costs. It is due to be replaced with housing built to passivhaus standards.

A sprinkling of encouraging notes from several countries might signal a sea change in the treatment of public/social housing tenants. The trend continues for fixing up more of the housing and pulling less of it down (or at least, pulling some public housing down but building more).

Also positive: public relations folks and spin doctors for governments, non-profits and free market developers are generating press releases to let the general population know that the social housing tenants themselves have been actively consulted in the new plans.

Encouraging, yes. Tenant are indeed being given a chance to speak. But is anyone actually listening?

How to speak and make an impact with one or more levels of government? And let’s not forget worldly-wise housing authorities that are, as usual, being squeezed by all sides. And of course there are the hotshot developers who know all about the logistical nightmares of building vast quantities of housing?

It’s clear that tenants need one or more spokespersons who are able to speak truth to power without giving offence, while still retaining the respect of all parties in a complex enterprise.

This is not a skill set that blesses all of us, to say the least.

What follows is an article about reimagining/rebuilding an existing public housing project in Charlottesville, Virginia: Friendship Court. The emphasis of the article is on the victory of piecing together public housing money with “green” development money to fully fund a project and guarantee its path to success.

But this is a local story being duplicated all over the world on a daily basis. Tireless advocates, business people and governments come together to finally kick start another affordable housing project (alas, far too few of them to stem rising tides of unaffordable housing.)

What is more intriguing about this project is the role played by a tenant advocate, Myrtle Houchens. Fifteen years ago, she moved out of Friendship Court, and yet she is credited with having an outsized impact on it success.

Read more about plans for Friendship Court, and the role of Myrtle Houchens in the Energy News Network : Greenhouse gas pact helps fund green reinvention of Virginia public housing

US Public Housing Today: Necessity Is The Mother of Indifference

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Belgrade photo by Goran Necin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Yugoslavian era public housing (the high rises) still going strong in Beograd, Serbia.

Necessity the mother of indifference? A far cry from the period following World War II, when necessity was very much the mother of amazing invention as countries rebuilt housing following devastating wartime destruction.

Much of that truly remarkable innovation occurred in socialist-leaning countries. In the generally acknowledged centre of the universe — America —  the biggest necessity was to build housing to reward returning soldiers with a little house of their own. So long as they weren’t Black1.

Indeed, following WWII, necessity across North America was never about housing. Instead, it was a growing and hysterical propagandizing against those soviet bloc and soviet influenced countries that comprised the Red Menace threat to American-dominated world order.

Out with the bathwater went the baby, in this case the birth, development and perfection of modular housing, which was the engine of rapid housing recovery elsewhere in the world.

A fascinating article by housing historian Anna Kats gets sidetracked right off the top with a good old socialist sneer at America’s perennially bad attitude towards the amazing modular housing success that rebuilt the USSR’s homes.

She needn’t have bothered. As a pre-baby boomer with a long history of being inundated by American propaganda about the Red Menace, Kats’s “everyone knows how badly America regarded Soviet invention” falls upon this author’s deaf ears, or perhaps his fading memory.

With modern North American socialists these days being young and curious, her jargon-filled putdown of USSR achievement was entirely unnecessary, even as it sacrifices Soviet housing — remarkable in its own right — on the altar of her own cherished baby.

That is/was the remarkable development of Yugoslavian modular home-building, which three-quarters of a century ago, achieved and promulgated affordable housing success that we are barely beginning re-discover today.

Don’t be put off by her opening, the heart of this article is truly fascinating. Read more in Jacobin: In Socialist Yugoslavia, Mass Housing Wasn’t Just Ugly Tower Blocks

There’s also a catalogue of the housing built in Yugoslavia at the Institut IMS Beograd, which includes floor plans and photographs: Male Kuće

Payments To People Who Are Homeless – Cash Well Spent?

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Dollars photo by 401(K) 2012 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Cash dollars: the only truly flexible kind of voucher to hand out for those who need assistance?

More experiments with giving money to people who are experiencing homelessness, this time in California1.

The article below speaks mostly about a six month trial by the non-profit Miracle Messages. Participants received $500 per month. Critics of such programs argue that the money gets used for “the wrong things2.”

Miracle Messages asked participants not to spend the money on drugs or alcohol. It also provided support and coaching to program participants to decide how and where to spend their funding. They hit the right note with donors, who contributed $40,000 in a crowdfunding campaign (Miracle Messages’ goal was $15,000).

Some of the results surprised even the sponsors. Read more about this program and similar initiatives in California in the Mercury NewsBay Area nonprofit gives free cash to homeless people, with surprising results

Updated: New Life For 100 Year Old Buildings?

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A pilot retrofitting project is underway in Glasgow. It will shrink the carbon footprint of tenement buildings like this one.

In June 2020, affordablehousingaction.org reported about a renovation project at an eight unit tenement in Glasgow. Now, the BBC is providing an update on how it’s coming along. The renovations are extensive, but in the end, these homes, which are more than 100 years old, should achieve passivhaus standards. Read more at BBC: How do we make homes fit for net zeroes?

Below: Our first post on the research underlying the renovation.


Climate change research has identified a number of emission culprits. One of those culprits is older housing stock. A team in Glasgow is setting out to figure out how to reverse that.

Eight housing units in a building that is over 100 years old will be transformed from big emitters to non-emitters. As the work progresses, the team will assess how this pilot could be expanded to a larger scale. A big concern going into the project is maintaining the affordability of the existing units, as transforming housing with a large carbon footprint requires money.

It’s a triple challenge: refurbishment, energy efficiency, and affordability — certainly something for everyone to keep their eye on! For more on this development, see at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence: Climate Emergency Funding For Major New Project In Glasgow

Arizona Constables Reduce Evictions By Making Courtesy Calls

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Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google LLC, used with permission.
Pima County Consolidated Justice Court, Tuscon, Arizona.

Pima County, Arizona elects its constables. Constables have different responsibilities in different American states. In Arizona, they are officers of the county justice courts. One of the jobs of constables and their deputies is enforcing eviction orders.

During COVID, the a few of Pima County’s constables decided not to enforce eviction orders even before the CDC’s eviction ban. On their own time, the constables also started making courtesy calls to tenants who were at risk of eviction.

What happened? Eviction rates dropped. The county saved a bag full of money. And the County constable Offices have added courtesy outreach calls to the paid activities of their staff.

Read more at High Country News: Rebel Eviction-Enforcers Are Helping Tenants Stay In Their Homes

How Much Can A Street Corner Market Stall Skew A City’s Future?

South America Trip 793 photo by Powhusku is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Is this South American clutter of old buildings, market stalls and perambulating customers a suitable model for the future development of the City of London? Could be.

If you live in a large city anywhere, it’s not hard to put eyes on the dominating concept for the municipal change: “top down” city development. Just gaze on the horizon for signs of construction cranes and the big shiny high rise buildings complexes that are forging skyward beneath them.

“Bottom up” grow-like-topsy development is surely a thing of the past. Or is it? A victory for the little guys against a major “top down” developer in London, one of the world’s premier cities, has breathed new life into the idea of community driven, “bottom up” municipal change.

Read more in The Guardian: A community in the heart of Tottenham has shown how to fight the developers – and win

Here also is a story about street vendors in Corona Plaza in Queens, New York. They have different struggles with the City administration than in London, but there’s the same bottom up “we can make this work” spirit. Read more in NEXT CITY: Once Upon a Pandemic, NYC Stopped Antagonizing Street Vendors

Cold Facts: While The Govts Snooze, The REITs Abuse And The Tenants Lose.

Yellowknife, North-West Territories, Canada, home to a red hot rental housing crisis.

Any governments with housing responsibilities or any national housing activists with housing concerns should give a look to a CBC News four-part series on housing in the Canadian North. It is informative to those government agencies looking to off-load housing responsibilities to private enterprise, particularly those supporting low and no income citizens, (looking at you, HUD1). From Canadian experience, that has been a lose-lose proposition.

It all began in an array of “company” towns in Canada’s far North, in which the government was/is effectively “the company.”

To place this idea in context, consider resource-based communities starting up in the middle of nowhere (Canada has a great deal of nowhere, particularly in the North). A profitable extraction industry (oil sands, mining, water power, etc.) needs employees.

It’s in the interests of a company town to provide that housing as attractively as possible — even free — in order to keep its employees, as well as those who service the town’s physical, educational and recreational needs. Government? It inevitably comes along for the ride.

One day, the government wakes up and discovers IT is the biggest game in town. Maybe the local resource is tapped out and the resource extractor has departed. Maybe the Cold War has been cancelled and the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line station has closed down. Whatever the reasons, it is now in the government “company” interest to maintain housing along with all kinds of other structural and support services.

Are those governments pleased to be in charge? Like any modern neoliberal “small” government, of course not! What convenient private company can “do it better” and take over an array of government responsibilities including housing and business infrastructure, hospitals, and schools?

In Canada’s far north, this story begins with the formation of 90 North Construction, a company that developed specialized experience working and building in challenging arctic conditions.

From small beginnings in 1985, that company is now a part of a REIT2 that owns the lion’s share of rental properties across the far north, including public housing (HUD, with its RAD3 program to scrape public housing off its plate, please note).

And now, REIT investors on the far side of the earth can dictate how housing tenants, public and private, are treated, whether their homes are kept in good repair or not, whether they are offered a home for nominal rents or for exorbitant prices that force Northern Canadian tenants into housing insecurity.

Read Chapter 1 at CBC NEWS: The landlord’s game

Chapter 2: ‘It’s not OK’

Chapter 3: N.W.T. gov’t absent, yet enabling, as Northview grew

Chapter 4: Building and investment key to fixing Yellowknife rental market, experts say

The Biden Administration ❤️ Section 8 Vouchers. Does Anybody Else?

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rented photo by Our Home At is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Shelterforce is taking a crack at reimagining a functional Section 8 voucher program in the United States.

The central premise is “universality:” the idea that such financial support to pay rent (common to a number of countries) can be provided to absolutely everyone who qualifies. That’s certainly not the current situation where housing insecure hopefuls compete via waiting list or lottery for a fraction of the the necessary vouchers that a whimsical U.S. Congress makes available from year to year.

A weakness of Section 8 vouchers, noted by Shelterforce but otherwise largely ignored: there has been little or no effective legislation to require that free-market landlords accept clients who arrive waving Section 8 vouchers. Only a small fraction of those who actually need Section 8 vouchers get them. And only a fraction of that number actually are able to use them in the face of landlord hostility and/or racism. Putting it bluntly, Section 8 vouchers seldom work as intended.

The Shelterforce article explores one further impediment. Voucher 8 top-up happens only up to a “fair free-market rent.” Since we’re talking free-market here, the landlord should make that evaluation, right?

Nope. HUD sets the fair free market value, so any landlord can effectively refuse a section 8 voucher holder by requiring an “unfair” rent — a somewhat meaningless concept which an unfettered landlord may be entirely entitled to adopt in a free market economy.

It should be noted that the problems that plague Section 8 vouchers are not uncommon in other countries that use low income voucher systems1

In spite of all the caveats, The Biden administration is bullish on Section 8, so its potential certainly deserves re-evaluation. Read more at Shelterforce: Universal Housing Vouchers: A Promise or a Pipe Dream?

Internationals Scammed By Thatcherism? Go Local For Details

Maggie & Ronnie: a meeting of conservatism's earthly gods.

Ireland, The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and more: international victims of a Whiz-bang Goddess of Conservatism — Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.

“Thatcherism” offered music to ears tilted towards the right side of political hearing. A sampler:

  • Governments are generally incompetent and, though unfortunately necessary, should be shrunk to the smallest possible size.
  • Government spending, ditto.
  • As much as possible, social enterprise on behalf of the citizenry, including infrastructure development and maintenance should be farmed out to the private sector. It is filled with competent people who can do anything better and cheaper than government, despite taking a profit-sized (flexible terms available) bite out of any contract to pay for superior free enterprise skills.
  • Disasters in the management and maintenance of public housing for low and no income citizens are proof of government incompetence. Public housing should be sold off to anyone prepared to buy it and the free market allowed to take care of the poor.

We could go on.

Thirty years after Thatcher, international governments are still following many of Thatcher’s iron-fisted prescriptions for national health. But closer to home, Thatcher would seem to be falling victim to a famous saying: “no man is a hero in his own country.”

Putting it bluntly, there is an emerging view that Thatcher was a scam-artist — a leader parading forwards even unto war while spouting principles that she did not in fact follow herself, and nor did the government she led.

A lengthy article in The Guardian calls out this right-wing goddess, still sitting high on her pedestal overseas. It makes for interesting, if colloquial, reading in other countries. Unfortunately local Brit-speak abounds in the following article. It may require frequent trips to Wikipedia or elsewhere to decipher this unexplained expression or that incomprehensible acronym. We reckon it’s worth it.

Read more in The Guardian: Thatcherism is the big Tory scam that still distorts our politics

There’s Really No Room For Mr. Pea In This Housing Shell Game

Deregulation of housing will allow developers to ignore neighbours and flood neighbourhoods with faux "luxury" housing such as this being built in a Chicago suburb, causing housing prices to fall. Lower income renters will be able live in this cheaper housing while waiting (possibly forever), for public housing to be built that is more suitable to their station in life. Really?

Featured below, a no-doubt well-meaning article about the American housing, long and earnest, explains why that country can only manage its affordable housing crisis by building so-called “luxury” market rate housing as a stop-gap.

Such a sacrifice is necessary until Rip Van Social awakes from its long sleep and, like a queen bee, starts laying public housing plans that are fed and nurtured so that they quickly hatch into livable public housing shelter.

That in turn will come as a relief for those who mostly are not camping out in stop-gap market-rate housing they can’t afford. (Instead, they will be racing around the countryside in pop-up tear-down tent cities one step ahead of the authorities.)

Rip Van Social, unless you didn’t get the perverse reference, is the collective of governments which are, in the face of the growing housing crisis, in deep snooze mode.

Some might argue that we are already building market rate housing as an unaffordable stopgap. But the enduring secret of this one-day-to-come affordable housing technique apparently involves building much more unaffordable housing.

Alas, developers and builders are currently constrained by government regulations from shouting “The gates of suburbia lie open!” and marching their elite high-rise construction troops to invade and blot out the sun. Eventually however, helped by deregulation, such newly permitted efforts will create mammoth quantities of market-rate units, so many that housing prices will creep downwards towards affordability along with wilted, sun-deprived backyard carrots.

Hmm. Would profit-minded developers actually do that if they could? We’re betting they’ll be happy to build just enough housing to hold prices high, thus sabotaging the entire plot1. But hey, we all gotta believe what we gotta believe.

Before pushing you on to savour this “more of the same” solution for galloping housing unaffordability, we should note that the title of the following article trades on America’s love for conspiracy theories, particularly dangerous ones. As you will enjoy to imagine, “The Dangerous Myth Of Luxury Housing” is an all-encompassing crisis thoroughly to blame for the nation’s affordable housing woes.

Will we be letting the cat out of the bag by identifying the real culprits — the over-selling ad folks who shamelessly try to convince you that the new development right beside the freeway is a “Quiet Enclave of Luxurious Townhouses?” Clearly, the pernicious excesses of advertising folk will need to be regulated . . . oops, but we’re getting rid of regulation, aren’t we?

Actually, there are loads of thought provoking ideas to chew over as you read a whole heck of a lot more in Marker:  The Dangerous Myth of Luxury Housing

Is HUD Pimping Out Unoccupied Housing To The Private Sector?

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Court House and Post Office on Market Street in Philadelphia, where the fight for HUD's housing is shifting to the courts.

It’s a strange lawsuit on the face of it, Philadelphia low income housing activists taking on Marcia Fudge, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and her HUD1 army. HUD is, after all, a major fountain of funds for low and no income housing. Are these activists not biting the hand that feeds them?

One possible source of the activists’ aggressive stance is the success of Moms 4 Housing in California. Much of that success story has depended upon the support of activists when the moms in question occupied an empty home owned by a private house-flipping company2.

Things were looking quite hopeful for some Philadelphia moms this time last year. Try: Philadelphia Homeless Moms And Children Commandeer City Houses. But in this Philadelphia case, the vacant housing is owned by HUD, whose ostensible purpose is to house the homeless squatters, and has now unceremoniously booted the moms out.

How come? Well, one possibility is that HUD has made an heavy conceptual and financial investment in its RAD program3. RAD results in offloading public sector housing responsibilities to private sector shoulders, lured to do so by tax savings and other incentives.

This raises the spectre of HUD actively pimping for private sector companies by maintaining a supply of housing and land, which is unencumbered by residents, that can help grease the wheels of private sector investment.

Read more about the Philadelphia-based lawsuit against HUD at THE HILL: Activists detail legal fight against HUD for Philadelphia housing

National Housing Crises Everywhere? Fix Them By Killing Neoliberalism

Fine to suggest killing it, but both left-wing leaning and right-wing leaning political parties in westernized nations have been enamoured with neoliberalism for the past thirty or forty years.

Is “neoliberalism” a political philosophy? Or a social disease? Many now believe it is both.

So what is neoliberalism? How does it relate to “Thatcherism” and “Reaganomics?” Who dreamed it up, which countries and which leaders, have adopted it? How is it meant to work? How does it actually work? Why does it so thoroughly infect political thought and practice after decades of failed experiment? Is America’s Congress well-placed to be society’s Saint George and slay the dragon that many feel has outstayed its welcome?

A lengthy article from Salon does a fine job of exploring Neoliberalism’s life and times from an American perspective. Read more:  The crisis of neoliberalism: America arrives at one of history’s great crossroads

Affordable Housing Details You Might Not Have Considered: Fuel

You can bet the regional price of home heating oil soared after this explosion at Irving Oil, Saint John, New Brunswick in 2018.

Affordable housing is not just a collection of construction material and land costs. It’s a purse that must stretch to cover a rental or purchase . . . after any and all other essential costs have been plucked out. Food and utility costs are some obvious essentials.

This series of articles covers essential costs or benefits that might not seem so obvious, but nonetheless, depending on how they are structured, can turn affordable housing into unaffordable housing.

Home Energy Cost

In Britain, it’s estimated that three million people live in a state of fuel poverty. That number is expected to go up significantly, thanks to a rise in the country’s energy fuel cap. Ofgem, an independent regulator, is responsible to Parliament, controlling fuel costs in the best interests of national green objectives, as well as the pocket books of all citizens, not just the poorest.

Ofgem’s decision to increase the cap, however, are ultimately determined by the wholesale price of fuel. After dropping in the first year of the pandemic, wholesale prices are now rebounding, and with an increase in the fuel cap as many as half a million more citizens may be added to those already suffering from food poverty.

What can be done about it? Universal Credit is the national means of providing support to the UK’s poorest citizens. This all-in-one payment is not intended to be adjusted when an individual cost (such as fuel) rises. Adding insult to injury in the face of this increasing fuel cost burden, the temporary boost in Universal Credit to support additional COVID-19 expenses is set to expire, around the same time the energy price cap lifts. This double hit will significantly reduce the regular support payments to the most vulnerable.

What can be done about this increase in poverty? Activists at least have helpful ideas, which seems more than can be said of Ofgem or the government. Read more in The Guardian: ‘My heart sank’: how lifting energy price cap will hit the most vulnerable

Affordable Housing Details You Might Not Have Considered: Thieving

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Poster for the 1926 film The Splendid Crime. photo by Paramount/Famous Players/Lasky is in the the public domain
Movie fiction can make crime "splendid." In real life, it is ugly, demeaning and life changing, though some may be pressed to the point that they believe it to be necessary.

Affordable housing is not just a collection of construction material and land costs. It’s a purse that must stretch to cover a rental or purchase . . . after any and all other essential costs have been plucked out. Food and utility costs are some obvious essentials.

This series of articles covers essential costs or benefits that might not seem so obvious, but nonetheless, depending on how they are structured, can turn affordable housing into unaffordable housing.

As mentioned above, food and utility costs are obvious essentials in support of affordable housing. Okay, without utilities it may be possible to to limp along in the dark and cold, eating unheated food. Squatters know how this is done.

But food is a flat-out essential. What to do without it and without money to pay for it? There are a number possibilities, including

  • Food voucher programs such as food stamps
  • Food Banks
  • Shelter/Drop-in Meal Programs
  • School Meal Programs (usually children only)
  • and more, including . . . Thieving

It goes without saying that the last has potentially life-altering consequences for both individuals and families: fines that cannot be paid, incarceration, eviction with the associated banning for life from truly affordable public housing.

With a little reflection, it seems a poor choice for individuals and their families. But you have to eat. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

It’s not only a poor (if necessary) choice for families facing starvation, it is also a very bad choice for the community as a whole. Allowing citizens to be pressed to the point that theft is the only available eating option? It’s hugely expensive for taxpayers as a whole, with the costs associated with jailing thieves only the tip of the iceberg.

Is there any evidence that criminality is a problem for poverty-stricken individuals and families that are pushed to the limit, such as through the loss of shelter? Read more at THE CRIME REPORT: Rising Crime Rates Tied to Evictions: Philadelphia Study

The story in The Crime Report is based on research by academics who are specialists in criminology. Their research looks at how evictions interact with crime and neighbourhood stability, a connection which has not been given a lot of attention. The results of the research have been published in an open access article at SAGE journals: Eviction and Crime: A Neighborhood Analysis in Philadelphia

Getting To The Roots Of The COVID-Poverty “Link”

St. James Town photo by Keith Ewing is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
St. James Town, Toronto, a mixed income community. Some highrise towers are social housing, others are free market rental for those citizens with deeper pockets. In which towers are you safest from COVID infection? The answer isn't as obvious as it might seem.

Eight months ago, The Neighborhood Developers (TND), a non-profit housing provider in the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, shared news about the COVID infection rates at their properties.

Chelsea residents have the lowest incomes in the state. The city also had the highest rate of COVID infection in the state. Yet at the properties owned by TND, the infection rate was 9 times lower. What possible reason could there be for the difference? TND thought that it came down to crowding, but not in a way we may have been conditioned to expect. 1. Now from Toronto, similar evidence is emerging.

Researchers from Open Policy Ontario are investigating the link between poverty and COVID infection rates. As they point out, COVID is an equal opportunity infector: it doesn’t ask about your income level.

Open Policy Ontario looked at infection rates in neighbourhoods in Toronto where residents have very low incomes and found that poverty on its own did not predict infection rates. It turns out that in neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of “community” housing, the infection rates are lower2. In community housing, rents are geared to income.

Similar to TND properties in Chelsea, there is less crowding in community housing in Toronto than in rental housing in the private sector. What? In North America at least, we have been conditioned to expect that community housing is the root of all evil. Surely it is community housing that is overcrowded?

But that is not the case either in community housing in Toronto, or at TND properties in Chelsea. There are rules about the numbers of residents who are allowed to occupy community housing. Not so much in private market housing, where multiple low income families often pool their incomes and live together in order to pay the rent: occupancy standards are the least of their concerns.

It is also worth noting that many of the tenants living in community housing in Toronto are seniors who have very low incomes. Open Policy Ontario attributes the infection rates for people with lower incomes to five factors3.

The capacity to avoid congregate settings is one of the factors. Nursing homes are congregate settings. The lower levels of infection in community housing contrast with the levels in nursing homes, which were among the highest in the province. Some of the people who live in nursing homes have very low incomes, but again COVID wasn’t being selective.

You can the read Open Policy Ontario‘s report about the benefits that community housing conferred during COVID here: Covid-19 hot Spots, Cold Spots and Poverty – In praise of community housing

Many Homeless Youth Are Not Just Adventuring. Give Them Shelter

I have no excuse photo by D.C.Atty is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Yup. Some youth are happily homeless, backpacking towards adulthood, one friendly host-with-a-couch at a time.

For a great many, however, homelessness is an uninvited nightmare. The young person may have aged out of care: foster parents no longer paid to support them. Their own parents may have rejected them — a common enough experience for LGBTQ2S children. They may suffer from the same kinds of emotional, health or drug torments that keep adults on the street.

These homeless youth need shelter and support, and at the moment, the U.S authorities are failing them.

It wasn’t always the case. The start of the linked article below introduces a young woman experiencing homelessness who was lucky enough to access a two year support program that provided shelter and allowed her to complete school. An evaluation of similar transitional programs that support young people aging out of care found that three-quarters of the participants moved into stable housing.

Unfortunately, funding has dried up for these medium term programs that have been successful “runways” from homelessness into homes1. Instead, the funding has been used to meet budget cutting obligations, or shifted to support short term emergency programs and long term permanent housing2.

Read more about the importance of medium-term housing programs in the following article from Reuters.

Note: The following article, presumably made available to subscribers to the Reuters News Agency, contains notes to editors in its title and first few lines. So far, media agencies that have picked up this story have failed to decipher the scope or intent of these notes, so the articles open reading as gobbledygook. We are offering the Reuters version of the story, with complete notes. They should be skipped. The article begins with the dateline: WASHINGTON, Aug 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation). 

Read more here: ‘Runway’ to stability: U.S. urged to boost housing for homeless youth

Shelter “Option” For Tenters Pressures An Emergency Shelter System That Is Already Full

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March in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where emergency shelters are unable to accommodate all the people who are homeless.

How many homeless can dance on the head of a pin? This philosophical question about angels suits current homelessness practices in many cities. Bogus public relations spin-the-bottle exercises point over and over again at the same shelters as a solution to this or that homelessness problem.

Has this pretence of shelter availability any true practical value? COVID has demonstrated otherwise. In this pandemic, “Everybody In” (to use the UK’s name for its program to manage community and individual health and safety for people experiencing homelessness during COVID) quickly demonstrated that local shelters everywhere cannot begin to cope with an “In” for “Everybody.” The result has been the temporary usage of all kinds of spaces, in many cases with “In” being stretched to “Inn,” with pandemic-emptied hotels and motels featuring prominently.

Even in non-COVID times there have been well-meaning (if hopeless) attempts to make local shelters a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, an ambitious 2015 winter program in Portland, Oregon was eventually cancelled. That city’s commitment to provide beds for all comers pulled a plug that sent ripples far and wide, threatening to drain a region’s, if not a nation’s, homeless into a single local shelter system1.

With the pandemic fading (or at least a public and official perception that it is fading, regardless of the truth of the matter) we are seeing a return to this casual PR spin-the-bottle that inevitably points to an inadequate local shelter system.

And just who will be displaced in order to fulfill such a promise? Aside from being inaccurate, it’s all too conveniently small scale to imagine that all people who experience homelessness are vagabonds sleeping in shop doorways, or in little tents cluttering sidewalks or park land.

It’s important to realize that the local shelters in cities and regions are also serving a broader need than those of tent city displacement.

One example: these days shelters are home to regularly employed individuals whose earnings simply cannot support them, and sometimes their families. Would these shelter users be bounced out to admit more(?) deserving tenters? The housing crisis is such that children are growing up and attending school for years, with their only home a public shelter2.

Another strain on local shelters: hospital patients who are discharged with no home to go to3.

And just recently, another group of citizens are being added. Explore this problem in Thunder Bay, Ontario at the CBC: Transitional housing needed for homeless people being released from custody

So, now we’ve got people from encampments, employed folks who can’t afford to pay rent, and people being discharged from hospitals and correctional facilities all showing up for a space in the local emergency shelter.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, along with many others, can be excused for believing the new year 2021 heralded the end of the pandemic. A fourth wave is dashing those hopes for all of us, Tory included.

He cannot be so readily excused for a resumption of high-handed business-as-usual harassment of the poor by clearing tent encampments with battalions of police4. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that tent encampments are best served by allowing them to shelter in place. Shouldn’t this kind of thinking continue to rule the day5?

Nor, in the face of some 80,000 plus families in Toronto on the waiting list for truly affordable (public) housing, can Tory be excused for touting the shelter system as a pathway to permanent housing. But he has done just that recently6.

There exists no such meaningful pathway at this time and Mayor Tory knows it. He, along with other local government leaders in Canada, have been publicly calling for more permanent housing that is affordable, more housing with supports and more transitional housing, all as part of a strategy to end homelessness. There has been some response from higher orders of government, but much, much more is needed. You can read more about the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ prescription for the homelessness crisis here: Affordable Places to Live

Is Coordinated Entry To Homelessness Services Possible?

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Mary Kate Bacalao is the Director of External Affairs and Policy at Compass Family Services, an agency that supports families experiencing homelessness. In Shelterforce, she speaks about difficulties in the U.S. with “coordinated entry”. Because it is the access point to homelessness services, it’s important to understand what coordinated entry is and how it’s working.

What is coordinated entry?

Coordinated entry (or “coordinated access” as it is called in Canada) creates a virtual “queue” to access homelessness services. The order of the queue is based on individual or family need, which is established using a common assessment tool. Everyone who is seeking service is required to complete the assessment. The outcome of the assessment is a number, which generates a ranking (or place in the virtual queue) among everyone who has completed the assessment. It also determines the services, if any, that will be provided.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made coordinated entry a mandatory element of the homelessness services it funded, starting about 10 years ago. In 2017, the Canadian government signaled its support for coordinated entry in the National Homelessness Strategy.

How is it working out?

Coordinated entry means that the people who receive the highest scores get help before others. This seems reasonable in principle, but as Bacalao and others point out, there are difficulties.

The whole idea of getting a number can deter people from applying. We might think that a number suggests objectivity, but in the experience of Indigenous people in Canada, numbers are emotionally loaded. Every indigenous student enrolling in a residential school (which they were required to attend) was given a number. While in school they experienced beatings, sexual assaults and other abuses at the hands of their teachers. Former students as well as their children and grandchildren, share a wariness of numbers, to the point that they do not seek services at all. Try: Ranking By Numbers Gets In The Way Of Homelessness Services

It also turns out that there are biases in the coordinated entry assessment tool that is widely used to set the score. As a consequence White people get a higher score than Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour.

On the ground, this can mean that White people receive assistance before Black people who have been homeless for longer. It can also mean that White men receive assistance before Black women, who, while homeless, are at much greater risk for physical or sexual assault. Try: Line Up Here – Giving Preference To Access Supportive Housing

Bacalao also notes that the thresholds on the list are not fixed. This means that a score of 100 makes you eligible for services one day, but not the next. This aspect of list management means that the program can appear to be successful, when in fact fewer and fewer people are being served.

You can read more about the difficulties of coordinated entry, as well as ways to make it work better, at Shelterforce: The Hunger Games of Homeless Services

Paying Rent Leaves No Money For Food? U.K. Veteran Can Help

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Carrotty Points of Light © affordablehousingaction.org all rights reserved

In 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush memorably described a thousand points of light as  “…all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good.”

For those who politically lean “progressive,” this sentiment, worthy as it might be, can cause a certain amount of gnashing of the teeth. For this was, and still is, very much a Thatcherite, neoliberal view of “small government.” Leave social trivia such as food and shelter to the do-gooders and the free market. The business of lean-and-mean “small government” is fighting wars and dumping trash.

Still, political teeth-gnashing aside, it’s nice of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take a moment from fighting and dumping (COVID, Afghanistan, refugees, etc.) to draw our attention to the most worthy individuals who have won one of his daily “Points of Light” awards.

Read more in the Peterborough Telegram: Former homeless veteran who set up food charity in Peterborough given special award by Prime Minister Boris Johnson

2008 Housing Meltdown: Lessons for The Land-Grabbing Little Guy

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The artist posted this picture of his work in late 2008, when the world-wide mortgage meltdown made it particularly poignant. Read his thinking on this work here.

Since the world is largely full of losers, with mere handfuls of winners (think Olympics) chances are as you read this that, although you do not carry a card to attest to your incompetence, you too are a loser.

That, at the very least, should make you sympathetic to the legion of also-rans who attempt to play and win on the very un-level playing field of speculative investment. Always assuming you have the bucks to do so. (It’s pretty safe to assume you don’t.)

Speculation in the land and/or housing market is a cutthroat game played by those who already have millions in their pockets. How to join in? And why would you?

Answering the second question first: why would you? Here’s a hypothetical: maybe you feel strongly about the need to acquire land and property at a reasonable price, in order to make it available to those poorer folks who simply cannot afford free-market prices and/or rents.

But is it even possible to join into to this high stakes buying and selling game?

Yes, not that it’s easy. We’ll leave it to the inestimable Shelterforce to explain how: Lessons from the Last Housing Crisis: How to Get Control of Properties

Where Does A Hospital Discharge You To When You’re Homeless?

Ruptured appendix, postop hospital stay, day 8. Discharge Day. If you were homeless, what next?

The international gospel for ending homelessness is a program known as Housing First. It has demonstrated itself to be so successful that many jurisdictions have tied their funding grants to agencies which promise to use the Housing First model.

In some respects however, Housing First can be a victim of its own success, and in turn an inhibitor of homelessness programs rather than a facilitator. The reason is quite straightforward. Robust housing programs which help people off the streets by using the Housing First model put their essential requirement right up front: housing . . .first.

And where is this housing truly affordable to the homeless, or indeed to charitable agencies that struggle to make housing available those who are transitioning from the streets? More and more often in today’s speculator-driven housing markets, it is simply unavailable.

So what’s the secret with countries like Finland that run robust and successful Housing First programs that nationally produce ever-falling rates of homelessness? The answer is that the government annually sets aside significant funding and adds truly affordable housing to its housing stock, which ensures there are homes to support the Housing First model.

Most countries just don’t make this kind of commitment. And where truly affordable housing is unavailable, money set aside to support Housing First’s well-regarded efforts may simply not get spent at all.

So what’s the alternative? The only alternative there can be: housing second, not first. Supports, not housing, provided first while the homeless are still trapped on the streets.

There is no grand successful “housing second” program to detail what features are essential and which are optional. There are only explorations by different agencies around the globe who are doing their best to support the growing tide of unhoused individuals and families while they look and look for housing. We’ve done stories on this kind of program before. Here’s one from Ireland: Try: Homelessness: Ireland Tries ‘Health First’ When ‘Housing First’ Is Not An Option

What particular kinds of supports are useful? Here’s an example of new supports being put into place for the people who experience homelessness in Jefferson County, Colorado. Read more at CBS Denver: New Center Offers Recovery Resources For Homeless In Jefferson County

In An Eviction Swamp, Right To Counsel An Elusive Life Saver For US Poor

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Still from the American comedy film See My Lawyer (1921) author Christie Film Company / Robertson-Cole Distributing Corporation is in the public domain.
Still from the 1921 movie "See My Lawyer." Put-down jokes about lawyers have been around forever, but for countries with a British Common Law framework, free criminal court-appointed lawyers have rescued many lives from purgatory.

Facing a criminal charge? Theft perhaps? In the U.S., the Constitution protects your right to counsel. Completely broke and can’t afford a lawyer? The court appoints one for free. That lawyer will help you minimize the impact on your life, even if you are found guilty1.

Contrast this with the plight of someone such as yourself who, through a series of misfortunes, has fallen behind on rent payment. The landlord, looking for a speedy resolution, asks a court for permission to evict you. Are you entitled to a free lawyer (assuming that if you temporarily can’t pay the rent, you can’t afford to pay a lawyer either)?

There is unfortunately no U.S. constitutional right to a lawyer for a person who has perpetrated the “crime” of rent arrears.

Does it really matter?

It sure does. The Philadelphia Bar Association did a study of the problem in 2018. It found that out of 100,000 cases, when tenants were supported by a lawyer they were only evicted 5% of the time. Put more simply and bluntly, tenants in arrears with legal representation were seldom evicted.

Right now, there’s a lull in eviction “business as usual,” thanks to a better-late-than-never intervention by the White House that has reinstated a COVID  eviction moratorium2. The reinstatement may soon be struck down by the courts, citing Biden Administration overreach. But in any case, the moratorium will end, if not sooner, then later. And when that happens the eviction sausage mill will once again begin to grind up the lives of citizens who are evicted.

What can be done about it? An article from New Orleans discusses advocacy for a variety of different programs that have been successful one way or another in piecing together funding for tenant legal representation in courts handling evictions. Read more at NOLA.Com: With temporary eviction respite, advocates eye legal representation as permanent fix

Further, a Shelterforce article discusses advocates who are looking for a national solution. They are pinning their hopes on the Office for Access to Justice and the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR) both of which were established by the Obama While House. Closed down by Trump, the Biden administration has reactivated both.

What might they be able to accomplish? Read more at Shelterforce: Anti-Eviction Advocates Want the DOJ to Support the Right to Counsel Movement

Should America’s RAD Be Renamed SLIT — Slum Lords In Training?

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Arresting the Landlady photo by Horace William Petherick is in the public domain.
Illustration from "My Dog Trey" — a policeman arrests an unscrupulous landlady who stole a child's inheritance. After a century of enforcing restraint on predatory rental practices and overreaching landlords, is America unleashing the slum lords of old?

America’s latest supposed solution to their embarrassing public housing problem1 is the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. It is currently proceeding full speed ahead, well beyond “demonstration” level, much of it dumping public housing tenants into the arms of profit-motivated free enterprise investors.

RAD started in 2011 largely as a response to the failure of Section-8 vouchers. They were the core of a program designed to offload the responsibilities of housing the nation’s poorest onto the shoulders of private landlords.

“Thanks but no thanks,” has been the overwhelming response from those private landlords. Couple that with Section 8 funding, which is offered to only one in four people/families who qualify for it. The bottom line: Section 8 has failed to empty out existing public housing and pave the way for it to be demolished.

The current solution is to divert Section-8 funding to the RAD program, a honey pot for free market investor bees. The free-enterprise foundation of the RAD program is one that attracts private investment together with a guaranteed flow of Section 8 funding to manage the welfare of social housing tenants.

This in theory allows public housing to be refurbished with private funding while still committing to the rent-geared-to-income foundation of public housing. It also permits the building of additional market rate housing if it can be fitted on the public housing land footprint (with even bigger profits possible!).

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is touting this solution to off-load of government social responsibilities and to improve access to private funding sources for repairs2.

RAD allows ownership of public housing units to be leased to private firms. It also allows private firms to manage public housing projects. Activists are concerned that RAD amounts to a de facto privatization of public housing, one in which investor foxes are left at least semi-permanently in charge of the tenant hen-house, with inevitable mayhem foisted upon the tenant hens3.

Funding the refurbishment of public housing while maintaining fundamental support for tenants means an agony of conflicting views for councils and their housing authorities as they explore the potential of RAD4.

Which brings us to an essential question concerning private enterprise commitment to a social necessity. Will investment companies effectively and compassionately care for the low and no income tenants who have been given over to their charge?

How much of their commitment is genuine, and how much merely lip service hiding investors’ basic shareholder-driven responsibility to squeeze the last drops of profit from government funding, regardless of tenant welfare?

There is at least some evidence that investment companies might prefer to reign as the slum lords of yesteryear did. For one somewhat discouraging hint of longer term possibilities, read more in The City:  Alleged Mold Coverup Stains Public Housing Move to Private Management

. . . . and a second in another New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) property turned over to private management care under RAD, in amNY:  Manhattan lead paint confusion casts new doubts on moving public housing to private management

Evaluating HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration

Albany PubliC Housing photo by Paul Sableman is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Public Housing, Albany, New York. Can private enterprise manage and rehabilitate public housing efficiently while treating tenants compassionately?

This post is about an evaluation of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which was commissioned by HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). It was released in 2019, but merits a closer look, as it is being wound in to discussions about the future of the program.

What was RAD supposed to do?

One of RAD’s goals was to flow funds to allow repairs to aging public housing stock. To access funds, Public Housing Authorities (PHA) were required to change their source of HUD funding from an operating subsidy to housing vouchers. Shifting to vouchers meant that the properties had access to new sources of funding to repair or replace the existing housing.

Another goal of RAD was to enhance PHA’s capital reserves. Reserves are intended to set aside funds for future capital repairs to building systems such as wiring, roofing and heating/cooling.

RAD also included provisions for public housing tenants who were living in projects that converted to RAD. All public housing tenants who were living in buildings that converted to RAD were offered a housing voucher in their building. If the tenants had to move out while the renovations were completed, they were offered a temporary housing voucher or another unit in the complex. Housing vouchers were also offered to tenants who elected to move away from their their unit permanently.

What happened?

The evaluation reports that

  • RAD units were repaired, while comparable units that remained in the public housing stock had fewer repairs or none at all.
  • capital reserves for RAD units increased.
  • two thirds of sitting tenants did not have to move during renovations. A further 10%, who moved for the renovation, returned to their former homes. The majority of tenants were pleased with the renovations.

Is there anything else we should know about the evaluation?

Yes, much more. Here are a few examples:

  • The analysis looks only at projects that were renovated. The sample does not include any cases where the buildings were torn down and replaced.
  • Investor equity was the largest single source of funding for the renovations (38.6%). This includes the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), a tax expenditure (i.e. tax revenue that the government didn’t collect). Commercial loans with no public backing accounted for 11% of the funding.
  • The findings about renovations and capital reserves are based on a sample of 18 projects that had completed their renovations. This represents less than 2% of the total of 1,553 projects that had been approved during the first six years of RAD.
  • The findings about tenant experience are based on a sample of 19 projects where repairs were completed. Some of these projects may be in the sample of 18 projects used for the financial analysis.
  • Post renovation, tenants reported lower rates of broken or damaged windows, signs of mice or rats and signs of mildew. Tenants continued to experience no running water and unworkable toilets at similar rates before and after renovations. They were more likely to report peeling paint and broken plaster and cracks or holes in the walls after the renovations were completed.

Why does this matter?

The evaluation focusses on early RAD projects and only on housing units that were renovated. These and other features of the evaluation, some of which are noted above, mean that the conclusions and recommendations should not be considered universal to the program. Housing Authorities and decision makers who are considering a RAD conversion should be particularly attentive. Once on the RAD path, there is no going back1.

The research methods will be of interest in any jurisdiction where an evaluation is being designed. Partly this is because it is interesting to see how researchers break down and evaluate a research question. In this case, the researchers used available data in creative ways to analyse RAD’s effects.

It’s also important to remember that evaluations can only comment on what they look into. In this case, the evaluation was about renovated projects. The findings do not apply to projects where building were torn down and replaced. Decision makers, advocates, program managers and policy makers need to be sure that the evaluation they are designing will answer the questions they are asking.

For planners and managers, who are exploring program options for repairing buildings, the evaluation also includes an extensive discussion of how RAD works.

The full evaluation is available at HUD: Evaluation of HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD): Final Report

Public Housing: “Lean And Mean” Clashes With “Green”


American public housing over the last few decades has been an underfunded study in ignoring basic tenant health and safety. But with a growing outcry about everything from lead pipe poisoning to broken high rise elevators, mould and malfunctioning appliances, another funding imperative has simultaneously emerged: “green” energy efficiency, with governments expecting to lead the way in saving the world from climate change.

So, with limited funding to manage either tenant needs or green energy efficiency needs. Something’s gotta give, right?

If only it were that simple.

The two issues are intertwined. A Cambridge, Massachusetts public housing complex opted for “green,” and refurbished to reduce energy costs. Alas, it did not properly evaluate tenant needs. The result: when a single tenant boiled water to attend to personal health needs, it wound up costing the housing authority tens of thousands in repairs.

Both tenant health and safety AND green efficiency will be required in the future. It’s not a convenient bean counter solution of “either-or.” Read more in Cambridge Day: Millers River tenant had own way to humidify, and it cost $31,000 to clear the resulting mold

Fiercely Dependent! Reporting The News The Way YOU See It

What would you guess? More failed homeowners gathering for breakfast, or more evicted renters?

Fiercely Dependent? Well, it certainly makes a change from the more usual journalistic pronouncement: “Fiercely Independent: Reporting the news the way WE see it.”

The Halifax Examiner is looking for a little dependency as it considers how to best to report upon the growing housing crisis in Halifax, Nova Scotia in a series called Priced Out.

The plan is to build a reporting team that takes guidance from regular community consultations in the form of “reader engagement sessions.”

Intriguing.

Could it prove more useful than conventional reporting, either to give folks better understanding of the issues, or to better promote community welfare advocacy, or both?

Certainly there is a growing sense that “lived experience” is important to developing successful programs to end homelessness. For example, Vote Housing, a Canadian group of agencies, is currently making lived experience an essential part of the their effort to influence the upcoming federal election.

On the other hand, soliciting opinion and advice is not the same as soliciting the fruits of experience. For example, the current Liberal government is the architect of Canada’s 2017 National Housing Strategy. How is their current election platform advising Canadians to deal with the housing crisis? Reflecting the National Housing Strategy, their election platform is skewed strongly (and many, including the Liberals, would argue appropriately) towards Canada’s 68% of the population who are home-owning individuals or families. If house prices continue to climb, the future implications of this housing crisis for homeowners may well be one of increasingly genteel poverty.

But the renters who are currently “priced out” are far more vulnerable to the current crisis than homeowners are. Homelessness stares these less prosperous Canadians renters in the face. How will “reader engagement sessions” exploring the nature of the housing crisis fare if/when the the balance of opinion reflects the needs of greater numbers of financially pinched homeowners? Will their majority of opinions simply drown out the pleas of the poor who are but a step away from life in a homeless shelter, or in an illegal tent in a public park?

Adding to the difficulty of balancing opinions on the housing crisis is 30 or more years of neoliberal thought that has been embraced by left and right leaning political parties. Neoliberal philosophy is well-rooted in the believed existence of a class of people who are taking a free ride through life on the backs of harder-working citizens. This perception currently pervades government thinking and communication in many countries and at all levels. Supporters continuously vocalize on Twitter, in letters to the editor, and in town hall meetings.

How to filter advice and opinion about an affordable housing crisis when the advisors and opinionators loudly share this often-racist philosophy of welfare “kings” and “queens” who belong exactly where they find themselves in life and are “entitled” to nothing more?

It seems as if the Halifax Examiner is tackling a very difficult row to hoe, and deserves considerable praise for taking on the challenge. We look forward to reading some of that journal’s citizen-assisted perceptions on the housing crisis.

Read more about this project in the Halifax Examiner: PRICED OUT

Was The American Dream After All A Second Class Utopia?

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Humphrys Hewlett House photo by Masterhatch is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Cannington Manor, a 19th century utopian community in rural Saskatchewan. It was intended for the upper classes and abandoned by its inhabitants. Utopias have a way of disappointing expectations.

The American Dream as it is generally imagined is still principally a land of tiny castles on barely larger kingdoms, with notional moats nothing more than grassy drainage ditches that line winding suburban streets. But today, that dream is no longer fixed upon the style and trapping of physical space, either within a community or apart from it.

Today, the American Dream is a utopia of abstraction: ownership. Ownership is more important than its physical trappings in a suburban neighbourhood, or as a condo within a modern urban high rise. It is a investment. Its cherished value is as a caterpillar for an unexplained future that may one day burst forth to become one or more of many possible butterflies. Meanwhile, it exists as a hopefully pleasant place to live.

Americans pursued other utopias, but none have overmatched the American Dream, though many were more ambitious in their intent.

One of those utopian dreams was public housing, which was both a physical and a social ideal. As conceived by its pioneers, it was far more challenging and potentially far more rewarding than a split level ranch fronted by an obligatory empty lawn and backed by a pandora’s box of patios, swing sets, flower gardens and summer pools.

Alas, as an American utopian dream, public housing has been a disappointing failure. Why is it so, when other countries have more successfully realized some of its ideals, and continue to move them forward1?

What were its original ideals? How close did public housing come to realizing them? What political and social events conspired to turn this ambitious dream into what today seems to be a long-lingering nightmare?

In the following article, questions about some of these dreams are asked and answered, supported by the imagery and thoughts of a photographer who devoted much of his life and art towards a social housing utopia. Read more in CITYWATCH: The Rise and Fall of an American Dream: How one photographer saw the promise of public housing in L.A.’s Aliso Village

Up In Smoke: Current Fate of UK Proposals For Cannabis Construction

Mauer 66 photo by Romancito77 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Hempcrete construction demonstration.

Insulation? It doesn’t have to be a manufactured product. It can be grown. Seaweed insulation made from shallow water eel grass once provided an excellent quality of insulation, gathered by raking it up from the strand line on ocean beaches1.

But managing the growth and harvesting of an underwater insulation material is unnecessarily complicated when compared to a plant that is one of the fastest growing in the world, which has been cultivated and harvested for centuries: cannabis sativa. Also known as hemp. Before the invention of miracle fibres in the last century (e.g., nylon, polyester, polypropylene, etc.) hemp rope sailed commerce, exploration, and immigration around the world.

As insulation alone, cannabis sativa has great potential. But it has further application in variety of “green” construction materials. There is a catch in the United Kingdom, together with many other countries. Subspecies of hemp produce a psychoactive ingredient abbreviated as THC. Smoking or ingesting THC can make you “high.” As a result, cultivation and/or further processing of cannabis sativa is banned, and that includes the low-psychoactive version known as hemp.

What is the world missing by banning cannabis sativa as a green construction material? Read more in de zeen: Use of hemp in architecture and design held back by “ridiculous” UK rules says farmer who built a house from cannabis

And why might this be of interest for truly affordable housing such as social/public housing? Because France, unfettered by the same attitudes and rules as the U.K., is already taking advantage of “green” hemp by building public housing using “hempcrete.” Read more in de zeen: Barrault Pressacco uses hempcrete to create social housing in Paris

Sacramento’s Clever Plan To Control Homeless Tent Camps: Own Them

Sacramento City Hall where an ambitious and controversial homelessness plan is flying high, on paper at least.

One unexpected benefit that all-too-briefly appeared during the COVID pandemic was the level of concern from national governments down to local ones for the plight of people who experience homelessness, who had no place to shelter from the disease.

This led everywhere to various measures to help people off the streets, ostensibly to safer shelter in a variety of temporary living situations. With thinking now trending towards victory over the coronavirus (quite possibly much too over-optimistic), the news media are beginning to fill with depressing news of people who experience homelessness being turned back out onto the streets, where they inevitably try the patience of inconvenienced homeowners, businesses and local governments.

The bigger and/or more important the city, the more publicized the indignities being imposed on its poorest citizens. In Los Angeles, the focus is currently upon quirky Venice, which wants the people who experience homelessness off their beaches, sweeping them up and down the sands so as not to offend tourists1.

In another of the largest cities on the continent, Toronto, parks filled with growing numbers of tents have reminded those more fortunate citizens how delightfully out of sight and out of mind the people who experience homelessness become when crammed into shelters. Attempts have been made cajole park squatters into a shelter system where violence and death have become more frequent. The cajoling has become more brutal as, one by one, tent cities have been dismantled2.

In Austin, Texas, the city government has been thwarted in its attempts to provide camping space for people who experience homelessness. Both the local population via referendum, and the state legislature, which is resident in the city, will give no quarter to the poorest, who are now banned from camping anywhere in the state, presumably under pain of fines they cannot pay, and/or incarceration in jail for their now-criminal camping activities3.

It is something of a relief, therefore, that the City of Sacramento is recognizing that the people who experience homelessness cannot be wished away, or even beaten away. They may be moved on, but they must try to survive somewhere. And while a program featuring hundreds or thousands of new homes would be music to the ears (not happening), the details of a new Sacramento pilot program for its homeless citizens at least sounds a note of optimism that this city, for one, is not committed to attempting to hound people who experience homelessness out of existence. Read more in at ABC10: Sacramento’s pilot ‘Safe Ground’ program aims to help homeless get back on their feet

A version of Sacramento’s proposal has now been approved by city council. The biggest uncertainty now is how one particular facet of this scheme plays out.

In part exchange for its civilized treatment of the people who experience homelessness, Sacramento is looking for reciprocal cooperation from those for whom the city has found some form of housing. They will not be encouraged to accept the opportunity but instead required to do so under pain of unspecified penalties.

This unusual and coercive part of Sacramento’s plan we felt worthy of comment in an earlier post. Try: Sacramento Flirts With Notion Of “Mandated” Housing For Homeless.

Meanwhile, The City of Vancouver in Washington State is moving forward with a pilot project to develop supportive camps for people who experience homelessness by the end of the year. No mention here (at least not that we’ve found) of a compulsory requirement that people who stay in the camps must accept whatever more permanent shelter is offered to them. Read more in Clark County Today: Vancouver advances supportive campsites pilot program project

Vancouver’s situation, across the river from much larger Portland, Oregon, does raise a difficult issue. What happens if managed camps become magnets draw people who experience homelessness from elsewhere . . . such as a nearby very large city?

Just such a problem occurred across the river in Portland a few years ago, with an ambitious plan to open city shelters for all. Try: Portland’s Local ‘Right To Shelter’ Couldn’t Drain A National Ocean Of Homelessness.

Whether we’re talking the magnet effect of a tent encampment or a city shelter, there are serious reasons to believe that the lack of services and the mobility of citizens demand national programs, not state or local ones, to ensure temporary shelter for all who are homeless.

UK Brick Arch Bridge A Framework For Housing The Homeless

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DSC_1183 photo by Martin Brázdil is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Leaving aside weak Canadian puns1, there’s plenty of irony to go around in a Manchester charity-driven project to build a village for homeless men under a railway bridge — a traditional shelter for the homeless everywhere.

Aside from other unusual features of this project, worthy of note was an original expectation to build the accommodation using shipping containers. A “tiny home” fad of shipping containers as a cheap housing method has been debunked by various building industries, at least for traditional hot summer/cold winter climates.

In this case, the necessity of insulation against both summer heat and winter cold, has quite probably contributed to the unanticipated expense of shipping container homes and flipped the project to move to traditional frame construction.

Worldwide, timber costs are skyrocketing during a post-pandemic building boom. Will they cause a flip flop, reverting the construction back to shipping containers? It’s a question with no immediate answers.

Read more at the BBC: Manchester homeless village to be built under bridge

Strengthening Community One Haircut At A Time

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photo by marcos ojeda is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is part of a series about community. Growing and sustaining a community brings benefits to the participants, provides a means of personal development and builds hope and resilience. It can also smooth the path to build more liveable, life-fulfilling housing for people with very low and no incomes. For more on the series, try: Building More Housing By Strengthening Community

How important is a haircut? Vast numbers of people found out just how important it is when the COVID pandemic shut down indoor contact between hairdressers and clients.

Self-respect can be tied to many things such as social status, wealth, home ownership, meaningful work. Stuck under soup bowl while a nervous spouse armed with kitchen scissors attempts a shaky-handed trim? It might be laughed off as a trivial inconvenience in a new and dangerous world, IF you have other means to nurture all-important self-respect.

But suppose you are homeless, and own virtually nothing. What does long, matted, unwashed hair do for your self-respect, basic practicalities aside such as trying to convince someone to hire you for a job.

So hats off (literally!) to Kim Dann, who works as a hairdresser in the UK. She is making a charitable donation-in-kind to the homeless. Read more at KentOnline: Isle of Sheppey hairdresser to give free haircuts for the homeless in Sittingbourne

When Governments Sanction Theft From Their Homeless Citizens

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In the above picture, every tent and its contents are owned by someone. If the city displaces them, shouldn't they preserve those belongings so that the owners can reclaim them?

It should be pointed out from the start that ownership of worthless, or near worthless “things” is not an exclusive preserve of the homeless. Anyone who has experienced selling off the estate of a relative will have encountered the shock of how little can be earned by selling hugely cherished but somewhat worn household items, all the way from the tiniest spoon to the largest sofa.

Now, why on earth would a government not only sanction theft from a homeless person, but pretty much encourage it?

The answer is simple enough. The belongings are generally nigh on to worthless, except to their owners. It’s hugely inconvenient, not to say expensive, to preserve those owned items against the possibility they will be reclaimed. Why not just steal those items, or allow them to be stolen? Storage cost eliminated, problem solved. And homeless folks, some of the most powerless persons in any society, can complain but do little about it.

Unless, of course, their belongings have been “disappeared” in a Portland, Oregon tent camp clearance and they have the support of an activist lawyer who is bent on getting belongings reunited with their owners, if not punishing the thieves. Read more in the Portland Tribune: Lawyer: Laurelhurst homeless belongings unlawfully trashed

Faults In Canada’s Housing System: Renovictions

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Renovation photo by John Hoey is licensed under CC BY 2.0
"Dear tenant, due to renovations needed for your rental unit we must require you to vacate it."

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has just published research about renovictions in Toronto1. The researchers, Christopher Zakher and Jordan Nanowski, draw on existing data over a ten year period to investigate the issue. They are to be congratulated for breaking new ground.

To complete the work, the researchers looked at the available renoviction data, which is published by Ontario’s Landlord Tenant Board2. There is information about applications for evictions, but not the outcome of the applications. In other words, the research cannot discuss the number of tenants who were actually renovicted through the Landlord Tenant Board process.

Zakher and Nanowski also point out that tenants may also be renovicted without going through the formal process.

With these limitations, the researchers can’t be expected to draw definite conclusions, and they don’t. They are scrupulous in reporting these and other limitations to their research.

Nevertheless, the analysis of the data report’s findings do suggest three characteristics of buildings where there renovictions were more common.

First, it was more common for owners to apply for a renoviction in neighbourhoods where the average rent was much lower than the asking rent for a vacant unit. This means that tenants who were renovicted and wanted to stay in the same neighbourhood could expect a hefty increase in their rent.

Second, applications for renoviction were more common in neighbourhoods where the rental accommodation was reported to be in need of upgrading to wiring, plumbing, heating or other core building functions3.

Third, applications for renoviction were more common in buildings with new owners.

The researchers note also that renovicted tenants with modest incomes will face the biggest challenges in finding new housing that they can afford. You can read the full report at the CMHC: Uncovering Trends in Formal, Development-Led Eviction Applications in Toronto

Ideas To Make Canada’s Housing Market More Affordable For People With Very Low Incomes

pink house photo by Dave Kliman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Cute ✅ Cozy ✅ Convenient ✅. Could it ever be truly affordable? How?

A year in to the COVID-19 emergency, the Maytree Foundation1 thinks Canada should be doing more to provide adequate housing for its residents. In 2019, Canada passed legislation to recognize the right to adequate housing. Canada also has a National Housing Strategy, which launched in 2017. The right to adequate housing, COVID-19, and the National Housing Strategy are the foundation for Maytree’s thinking in the report linked below.

Consulting with advocates, community agencies, academics and researchers, Maytree has assembled a set of six proposals. Here are a couple of examples:

  • A program to acquire existing affordable private market rental units and transfer them to the non-market rental housing sector (non-profits and co-operatives). Maytree draws on published research, which demonstrates that the per unit cost to acquire and renovate homes is less than new construction2. An acquisition program would also bring housing units on line more quickly than new construction.
  • A one time COVID-related housing benefit to help rental households with low incomes that have rental arrears. It estimates that an investment of $350 million would help the estimated 273,000 households (that’s $1,282/household) who are in rental arrears, having lost hours or their job as part of measures to manage the spread of the pandemic.

The report includes a discussion of significant gaps in Canada’s housing data, which make it very difficult to assess how well the existing housing supply meets current and future demands. Important data is missing (for example immigration forecasts), which will affect future housing demand. There is also a lack of data about home purchases by private investment firms and the effect that these purchases have on the housing market.

The report is obviously intended for Canadians and their governments. It should also hold interest for advocates, policy makers and decision makers in other countries where there is a dearth of rental housing that is affordable for people with very low incomes and there are widespread rental housing arrears following COVID.

Read more at Maytree: Getting To 2030 — Examining How Budget 2021 Helps Canada Achieve Its Housing Goals, And What We Need To Do From Here

Want To Lower Crime Rates? Fix Up Housing

Wooden moulds set in place to pour concrete steps that will create access to a new porch.

The City of Philadelphia began providing funding for low income homeowners to make basic system repairs to their housing in 1995. Now, research from the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates that this funding helps more than the homeowners: it benefits the neighbourhood, too.

The researchers compared crime data with the addresses where households had completed repairs with the City’s funding. In the years following the repairs, crime rates dropped. And, when more than one house on a block was repaired using City funding, the crime rate dropped still further. The researchers also note that lower crime rates generally correlate with higher health scores.

The City’s program is not edging out other investors. The homes are located in neighbourhoods where homeowners have difficulty obtaining financing for repairs from banks or other private lenders.

The research sample is robust, which means the findings provide good evidence for replicating the program in another community. The research report is also accessible on line, which is a boon to anyone who does not have access to academic journals.

You can read about the Basic Systems Repair Program and the University of Pennslyvania’s research at Penn Medicine News: City-Funded Housing Repairs in Low-Income Neighborhoods Associated with Drop in Crime

Toronto Tries To Dignify Kicking Homeless Ass And Taking Names

Settled In photo by michael_swan is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Homelesss tent living 10 Days to a COVID Christmas, 2020. Shelters overflowing, under-ventilated, pandemic-ridden. No room, thank goodness. Ah! Those were the days!

Nothing but tatters remain of whatever modest humanitarian reputation Toronto has earned so far in its treatment of the homeless during the COVID pandemic. The cause: recent police-led California-style tent city takedowns in local parks for the apparently criminal behaviour of attempting to survive in a public space. Read more at the CBC: Fallout from Toronto’s homeless encampment removals continues

Conversation article laments not only the brutality visited upon homeless occupants and supporters of city park tent encampments, but also upon the squandered chances for police reform. The article’s headline is encapsulated in a photograph from one of the clearances that might have been staged by Hollywood. A muscular super-villain cop bursting out of frame towards the viewer, his outstretched arm and hand choke-holding a frail protester. Read more in the Conversation: Homeless encampment violence in Toronto betrays any real hope for police reform

Toronto’s Mayor John Tory says park encampments are unsafe, but so are the the city’s overcrowded shelters: Read more at CTV News: Like a rat cage’: Toronto’s homeless describe packed shelters, surge in violence and death​

This pattern of criminalizing homelessness results in largely futile tent city clearances of people whose only option is set up camp somewhere else. Could there any real future in this kind paramilitary oppression? In a half-hour podcast, CityNews interviews former United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha to discuss where there is a better, human-rights based approach to Toronto’s growing homelessness dilemma — one reflecting Farha’s experience around the globe. Listen to the CityNews podcast: Can Toronto police itself out of a homelessness crisis?

Bunkabins: What Idiot Let That Idea Fly Unchanged?

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photo by Robin Hastings is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Family size?

Sure, we get it. “Bunk” and “Cabin.” Put them together and you’ve got cute little Bunkabins, small, private, inexpensive shelters for people who are homeless.

But we’re talking the United Kingdom here, not North America, where bins are mostly immortalized by that “20 questions” query: is it bigger than a bread bin?

In the UK, however, the response to a simple “what shall I do with this leftover pizza crust?” . . .  is, “bin it.”

Yes, in North America, “bin” is largely a noun: “Have we got a storage bin that will hold this?” In the UK, it’s frequently a verb: “Well, let’s bin that idea for starters.”

Bin, as in “throw out.” Most frequently meaning “Throw out the trash.”

Time to revisit the headline of this post. With social sensitivity (a.k.a. wokeness) such a UK specialty these days, who on earth signed off on a marketing name featuring little homes that seem to equate homeless shelters as trash bins?

Oh well, it’s a good idea anyway, in spite of its clumsy name. And (cynical side speaking here) there’s always that idea that all publicity is good publicity.

Read more in Cornwall Live: Cornwall’s new units for the homeless ‘shouldn’t include the word bin’

Homelessness As An Epidemic With A Computer-Predictable Course

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The homeless who live in the shadows of Toronto's stockbroker belt keep a low profile in Caledon, where anything horsey is a far more common sight.

Virtually all nations are still struggling with attempting to chart the rise and fall of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has produced an unprecedented display of graphic peaks and valleys. Experts, who are working with still uncertain knowledge, attempt to predict the future course of the disease and inform (convince?) the public of the appropriate actions that should, or must, be taken to mitigate the consequences.

Homelessness can be viewed as a separate epidemic, albeit one influenced by the coronavirus and in turn one that locally influences the course of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, given the free flow of populations in many nations, there is important information to be interpreted and shared about the about the rise and fall of homelessness, as well as value in predicting its location and impact.

Which brings us to a federally-funded Canadian project that is attempting to develop computer algorithms to do that. It is clearly not a development field for the faint-hearted. Consider the serious teething pains of a recently-implemented project in the United Kingdom to predict the “disease” of fraud among applicants for financial support. Try: Poor Grades For UK Machine “Intelligence” Serving Council Needs

The Canadian project soldiers on, however, gaining some astonished attention with a prediction that homelessness is due to rise significantly in York Region, which includes Toronto’s stockbroker belt with its monster mansions, infinity lawns and well-kept horse fencing. Homelessness in that neighbourhood? It’s apparently already there. Who knew?

Read more in NEWMARKETTODAY: Where will homelessness rise or fall? Federally funded AI predicts spike in York Region

Exercises in Public Housing Futility: Australian List Fiddling

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South Australia needs a new social housing wait list. What about the above, from William List, 1864-1918? "Apollo Charming the Swans", could be "The Government Charming the Tenants" (a line stretching far out of sight to the right). It would at least be a respectful list.

Lineups to nowhere? Are they a sick joke? The “West” not long ago found reason to mock lineups in the “East” a.k.a. the Soviet Bloc. And fair enough, the East made jokes about them, too. Such as, “If you see a really long lineup, don’t wait to find out what it is for. Get into it immediately. So many people waiting means it’s a lineup for something really good.”

At least Soviet Bloc lineups had some form of reward at their end: a reasonable chance for something essential but scarce, or non-essential little luxury.

What are we to make of lineups to pretty much nowhere with nothing at the end of them for all but a lucky handful? They are now a feature of many so-called advanced countries. That’s what lineups for “truly affordable” housing1 have become.

Affordablehousingaction.org’s home town, Toronto, is a world leader in this regard, and probably due a lot more mockery than it receives. More than 80,000 households are in an electronic line for handfuls of tired old public housing apartments and a very few new ones. Shouldn’t we be indulging in a hearty, if pained, laugh at this earnestly managed queue to practically nowhere, rather than nodding our heads sagely as if it all makes sense in this modern world?

The state of South Australia has recently taken supposedly serious steps to validate their own lengthy lineup for truly affordable housing. Is it announcing a great deal of new public housing to be built at the end of a long, dimly lit tunnel?

Hardly. They’re simply fiddling with the line, shuffling a few dozen people from here to there, or making the lineup more exclusive and trimming a hundred or so unfortunates off the end. It seems to be nothing but a moment of bureaucratic housekeeping in the vain hope of validating the entire concept of lines to never-neverland.

Is anybody much impressed in South Australia? Read more in IndDaily: ‘Exercise in spin’: Housing advocates slam eligibility changes

A Traditional Response To Homelessness In An Age Of Internet Influencers

Sometimes it takes a hundred folks, young and old, to do what three men with power tools and a cherry picker could manage. Good thing, too.

A modern, successful community? It is one led by a glossy, stylish eye-twinkler, sometimes with pouty lips, sometimes without. The community numbers in the thousands, tens of thousands, or even more, who hang out virtually upon the internet to inhale the “influence” of the leader. The influencer will guide them towards desirable lifestyle moments, as well as to the marketable gimmicks that enhance them.

Traditional communities? Thankfully, they’re still around, quietly doing their thing, buying into helpfulness, not hair products. Here’s one that’s worth a peek on the internet. Or, if you’re driving through Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, you might try a friendly wave. You’ll probably get one back.

Read more at the CBC: Village Of Tatamagouche, N.S., Rallies Around Homeless Family To Build Them A House

HUD To Choose Safety Of Investors Over Public Housing Tenants

Red Fire Extinguisher photo by MarkBuckawicki is licensed under CC0 1.0
Thanks to HUD's revised "safety" standards, fire extinguishers are not required in public housing.

Not all that long ago, private landlords were to be the new caretakers of America’s low and no income residents who could not survive in the free rental housing market. “Section 8” vouchers were to be the financing that would grease the palms of the nation’s landlords and oil poverty-stricken tenants out of the nation’s dying public housing, even into upscale neighbourhoods.

. . . Until Section 8 vouchers proved not to be the answer after all. Available only for a quarter of those who were eligible for them, shunned by landlords, they are still touted by out-of-touch local journalists and advocates as THE answer to low income housing, not having received the memo about their changing role from HUD1.

Actually, Section 8 vouchers are still sort of the answer in their new role propping up . . . no, not free market landlords, but instead free market investors. Investors have been enticed by repurposed Section 8 dollars towards the RAD2 program, which allows investors to buy management contracts to service public housing tenants and maintain the buildings. These in turn have become at least quasi-private housing, though land and buildings remain owned by public hosing authorities.

Only . . . it seems the investors may not remain enticed after all. With London’s Grenfell Tower3 disaster fresh in the UK, HUD has been mulling recent fire safety failures that have produced injuries and deaths in American public housing. Unfortunately, it seems that repurposed Section 8 voucher money will not both entice private enterprise to become public housing managers AND pay for safety upgrades in public housing.

Public housing tenants have been expecting private sector management committed to better service and repair their of their chronically dilapidated housing. But with HUD underfunding a fact of American life and private enterprise managers balking at such tenant frills as fire extinguishers on every floor, something’s gotta give. And it looks to be the safety of the tenants.

The shabby treatment of social and public tenants over the last few decades has been a fact of life in many countries, America included. Is that country, determined as it is to have the biggest and best of everything, going to wait for the most cataclysmic public housing tower disaster in the world to happen upon its city streets before belatedly committing itself to tenant safety in public housing?

Read more in The Architect’s Newspaper: HUD proposes looser safety requirements in public housing despite tenant concerns

Growing Non-Market Housing Programs With An Eye On Equity

Shirley Sherrod, along with other Black visionaries, started building community land trusts for Black and poor people in the American south in 1969. For a little of her story, see this NPQ documentary: The Struggle for the Land: A Story from America’s Black Belt

Advocates and community organizations are calling attention to inequities in the housing market in the United States. The burden of COVID-19 (who gets sick, who has to go to work, and who has lost hours and/or jobs) has fallen more on the shoulders of community members at the lower end of the income scale.

Low incomes are more common among people who are Black, Indigenous and Latinex. And, because of inequities in income, these community members have limited financial resources to manage financial shocks and protect family members from illness. Small wonder then that there is increased interest in community land trusts and other forms of non-market community based housing.

National Public Radio and Shelterforce teamed up to host a webinar with four speakers. Each one is working to make adequate housing a reality for people who have been marginalized in the housing market. The webinar began with individual presentations:

  • Krystle Okafor is based in New York City. She has been applying abolitionist principles from critiques of the justice system to evolve new approaches to develop/acquire, own and manage housing.
  • Gianpaolo Baiocchi has been evolving a proposal to create an independent social housing development authority that can purchase distressed housing, fix it up and pass it on to community non-profits.
  • Roberto de la Riva Rojas, who is based in Minneapolis, has been working with tenants to improve conditions in badly maintained rental buildings. One group has recently purchased the homes they live in from the owner, which they will operate as a co-operative.
  • Bernie Mazyck has been leading a coalition for community economic development agencies in South Carolina. It’s objective: to build networks of support for all kinds of Black-led economic initiatives. There’s been no housing proposal on the table so far, but it’s definitely on the coalition’s radar.

In the second part of the webinar, the speakers responded to questions from the audience. The questions and answers were unscripted, allowing listeners to hear about things the speakers were doing but didn’t mention in their opening presentations.

This part of the discussion also demonstrates some key skills that could help when organizing and building coalitions:

  • The speakers didn’t see eye to eye on what will work and what won’t, but they didn’t engage in “idea-bashing.” They were models for respectful disagreement. They also noted points of agreement.
  • The moderators ensured that all speakers had an opportunity to share their experience and their wisdom. They did this by directing questions to particular speakers for comment. They also ensured that the questions highlight unique aspects of each speakers’ initiatives. This was important to hold the interest of the audience, which included people from all over the United States.

Finally, for people who want to know more about each of the speakers and their work, the landing page for the webinar lists additional resources. To view the webinar and the resources, see at NPR: Remaking the Economy: Social Housing—A Path to Housing for All?

Renter Inequality: Not That We Have Anything Against Democracy, But . . .

Princeton, BC - house 01 photo by Jmabel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
As the homeowner of this house in Princeton, British Columbia, two levels of government will help you financially. If you're renting it, you're out of luck.

In the face of a report from a Canada-B.C. expert panel on housing affordability, here are some clues why grassroots democracy has difficulty addressing the province’s, the nation’s and the world’s current housing crisis.

At the heart of the global crisis are renters. It is lower income renters who are both cost-burdened and closest to falling into homelessness. Low income renters, including those in public/social housing, are becoming more and more just a small mishap away from living in a shelter, under a bridge, or in a tent.

True enough, many mortgage-holder owners are also housing cost-burdened. But on average in Canada, they are more than five times more financially secure than renters, with higher incomes that make a housing cost burden more bearable. Paying 50% of $100,000 mortgage-payer income for housing leaves more wiggle room than paying 50% of a $20,000 renter income.

So, one might expect a responsible government to save their handouts to help renters, rather than homeowners, no?

No. That was certainly the reaction of both British Columbia and Canada’s Federal government to a proposal from the expert committee to cut homeowner handouts in favour of rental housing support.

We can blame this unfortunate turn of events upon democracy. In Canada, 67% of voters are homeowners. It can easily be argued that a responsible government should be beholden first to the needs of that majority.

And indeed, both federal and provincial government are presuming that the majority are perfectly happy with the status quo. In British Columbia, that includes an annual homeowner grant from the provincial government. And the majority of citizens undoubtedly remain beyond delighted that there is no capital gains tax on a principal residence in Canada. As long as the cost of housing continues to rise, owners looking for other investments won’t find anything that compares with it. Why give that opportunity up?

With a world-wide obsession focused on home ownership over the last few decades, governments have neatly parked themselves between a rock (the national dream of home ownership) and a hard place (an ever-increasing affordable housing rental crisis, together with the social and physical costs of ensuing homelessness.)

Read more in The Tyee: BC and Ottawa Reject Changes to Reduce Inequality between Renters and Homeowners

Despite the negative and immediate response from provincial and federal governments, it is worth noting the membership of the expert panel who unanimously supported all of the recommendations in the report. The six members were drawn from the business community, the property development industry, non-profit housing providers, lenders and a sitting member of the governing provincial New Democratic Party.

Although both provincial and federal governments might want to squelch the report quickly, affordablehousingaction.org thinks that because this diverse group was able to come to consensus, the report is worthy of further consideration. You can access the report here: Opening Doors

Waiting For A Canadian Indigenous Housing Strategy . . . And Waiting

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Architectural rendering of homes under construction on Tzeachten First Nation in British Columbia. Thousands of homes are needed across the country.

Compared with their numbers in the community, Indigenous people are consistently over-represented in the point-in-time counts that help monitor progress on ending homelessness. The lack of adequate housing is undoubtedly a contributing factor: available data about housing among Indigenous people in Canada documents stress factors related to affordability, building condition and crowding.

Canada took a step to acknowledge this issue in its National Housing Strategy in 2017. The National Housing Strategy commits to a housing-based program for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people1.

Experience should guide the Indigenous housing strategy. This advice comes from people who have experience, who have struggled against the policies and programs that are supposedly intended to help. They are backed up by academic researchers2.

There is experience for a strategy to draw on. For example, There are 145 indigenous non-profit housing providers in Canada. They were among the first housing providers to identify that Canada’s National Housing Strategy would have a negative effect on the people who have the biggest housing needs in the country. As this CBC article shows, indigenous housing providers continue to be well positioned to understand the extent of the barriers that can block access to decent housing: Income threshold rules cause housing woes for some seniors, says N.W.T. MLA

Indigenous housing providers have formed a caucus within the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association3. A single access point like this should facilitate consultations and discussions about an experience-based strategy. One of the providers has penned a proposal. Read more at Anishnabek News: Opinion: Housing and the Economy – The framework of sustainable First Nations

An Indigenous housing strategy will need to encompass cities and rural communities as well as reserves. One challenge for indigenous people living in cities can be maintaining a connection to historic culture. As this CBC story from Montréal demonstrates, there is experience here as well to inform the strategy: Why this Montreal collective is moose hide tanning in urban spaces

Despite the intention set in the National Housing Strategy, there’s still no Indigenous housing strategy. There is experience to draw on. To push the indigenous housing strategy along, the Indigenous Housing Caucus is working with other housing organizations to draw attention to housing as an issue in the upcoming federal election. An Indigenous housing strategy is the first point in Vote Housing’s calls for action.

Why does this matter outside Canada?

This story sheds light on the challenges that any disadvantaged group may face when trying to move forwards on equity goals. It reminds people seeking change to look to people with experience to map the way forward. It also suggests the value of partnerships and coalitions as a strategy to persuade decision makers that housing issues deserve attention.

Grand Theft Auto: Authorities Steal Mobile Shelter & Job Access

Inclement weather? Those parking violation towaways just have to keep on happening.

It is disheartening to watch local governments warily circling an imagined threat like a dog sizing up an opponent, then pounce suddenly and brutally. This is particularly true when the “opponent” is one or more of a community’s most distressed citizens.

So it has been recently in the famously unaffordable city of Vancouver, B.C. where citizens with jobs as well as practical (if inelegant) forms of housing have been newly identified as targets for harassment. For some time now, Vancouver has turned a blind eye to collections of recreational vehicles, vans and car conversions that have found parking opportunities in and around city streets. It has allowed some low income citizens to survive as well as work in a city with far from enough affordable housing.

NIMBY neighbourhoods have, it seems, become fed up. So the city invokes parking by-laws to chase these mobile homeowners somewhere, anywhere else. As with endless tent city pop-ups followed by tear-downs, this convenient expired-meter approach to illegal parking will achieve absolutely nothing towards creation of sorely needed affordable housing. Read more in The Tyee: ‘I’m Not Homeless. I Just Don’t Have an Address’

Instead of treating RV living as a kind of social disease, why can’t Vancouver find some profit in supporting this extremely well known means of creating affordable housing (think trailer parks). Others have shown some willingness to innovate. Try: San Francisco’s First Safe Parking Lot for People Living in Vehicles Takes Step Forward and more recently in The Aspen Times: Could van life be one solution to Eagle County’s affordable housing crisis?

California Legislates To Support Land Trusts

The California Senate Chamber, where two bills were introduced and passed that make it easier for community land trusts to buy distressed housing.

A story from Next City reports on two pieces of legislation recently passed in California. They are intended to assist community based non-profit agencies buy housing. The first requires homes to be sold one at a time and allows up to 45 days to complete the purchase. The second commits $500 million to these purchases.

The legislation prevents the sale of foreclosed properties in bundles. The bundles were attractive to private equity firms, which quickly bought up large numbers of properties following the 2008 mortgage crisis. The 45-day purchase period gives non-profit agencies some time to assemble financing to complete the purchase. The $500M will help with financing.

With restrictions on evictions and foreclosures being lifted by the courts, the new purchasing rules will certainly give community based non-profit agencies a leg up. The article also discusses further financial challenges that community land trusts and other non-profit agencies will face1. Read more in NEXT CITY: California Puts up $500 Million for Community Ownership Against Big Real Estate

Ending Homelessness Two (Or More) Ways: Canucks Vote Now

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As Canada sails into a snap election, a move approved only by a quarter of the population1, there are hopes that Canada’s housing problems will be addressed. That is certainly the viewpoint of Vote Housing, a coalition of several groups that have been preparing for half a year or more for the Liberal minority government to roll the dice on achieving a full majority.

Politically-oriented thinking sees this election as nothing but a Liberal attempt to cash in on their COVID-19 performance and cajole a reluctant public to blow them a “well done” kiss.

Others, including Vote Housing, are hoping that there can be more at stake and one or more parties can be convinced to go into the election boosted by a commitment to end homelessness. Accordingly, Vote Housing is scrambling to enlist pledged supporters who are prepared to advocate for its concept to be embedded in one or all party platforms.

One of the difficulties of ending homelessness as a sellable concept is its “motherhood” nature. Pretty much everybody on earth wants to end homelessness, or at the very least give lip service to the idea. That includes past, present and future political parties.

The result of ending homelessness — everyone in a home — is clear. There are profound differences, however, on the best road to take in order the achieve the objective.

So, which road does Vote Housing favour as they try to enlist support? Doesn’t matter? That’s very much arguable. Consider the following article that alerts potential voters in Seattle that when it comes to housing issues, there are the good guys, and the bad guys. Read more in REAL CHANGE: Don’t be fooled by ‘Compassion’ Seattle

That article’s thinking turns on two profoundly different pathways, with government spending aligned with one or the other. So which pathway to ending homelessness would Vote Housing encourage citizens to support? Rather than speaking for them, or interpreting Vote Housing’s platform, we’re offering articles that illuminate differences between two different pathways in the United States. Those pathways to the same objective (housing for all) certainly mirror some Canadian concerns.

One point of view has recently been laid out in The Atlantic: The California Dream Is Dying. Another is set out largely as a rebuttal of The Atlantic pathway in CityWatch: One More Justification for Trickle-Down Housing Policies: They Boost the California Economy

Retired On Minimum Income? Barcelona Tries To Make It A Good Life

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Social housing in Barcelona, Spain, with easy access to the market across the street.

From a North American perspective, which affordablehousingaction.org shares in Canada with our noisy neighbour to the south, discussions about the future of public housing trend towards the awful. Inevitably, it seems, everything is falling down in a sewer of crime, poisoning people physically and socially as it collapses. Governments (largely embracing “good riddance” attitudes) plot how to save maintenance dollars by deploying underfunded pittances bolstered on paper by a thousand excuses for not doing much of anything at all. And all the while, hoards of poor folks queue endlessly — the line 80,000+ households long in Toronto alone — for the opportunity to join this mistreatment club.

We find it something of a relief, therefore, to be invited to explore new developments in a city that takes actual pride in its social housing, and works hard to develop better ways of serving its cherished clients. For those who would like a momentary holiday from North America’s slow motion train wreck, which passes for much of contemporary public housing, here’s an encouraging and uplifting article from DOMUS: Social Housing Barcelona: a new housing solution for the over-65s

Banks Backed Foreign Students To Inflate Canada’s Housing Costs Forever

How many of these UBC students can afford to buy multimillion dollar mansions? Just a few years ago, more than you might ever imagine.

Superficially at least, Canadians are justified in their pride of their banking system. Following the 2008 mortgage meltdown, as American banks were collapsing everywhere under the weight of their housing investment follies, Canada’s big banks sailed serenely on, weathering the storm with ease.

But just how much should Canadians admire and cherish their big banks, particularly when they understand the lengths to which those banks went to let foreign speculator-foxes into the the Canadian housing market henhouse?

For a period of time that is mercifully now ended, the Canadian banking system granted mortgages to university students with no visible means of support but pockets conveniently stuffed with multi-million dollar bankrolls.

These thinly veiled proxy actors for offshore investors, together with the profiteering Canadian banking system, must carry the blame for millions of Canadians who are living in, or who teeter on the edge of, poverty — even homelessness — thanks to the high cost of Canadian housing.

And where is the foreign capital released into the Canadian housing market to inflate housing prices and deliver bank and foreign speculator profits? There it remains today, continuing its dirty work.

Read more about how this came about in The National Post: Douglas Todd: Vancouver still suffering fallout from ‘students’ buying mansions

Affordable Housing Details You Might Not Have Considered: Period Products

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Pedro Juan Caballero30 photo by overkill is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Young women's education is interrupted when there is no money to buy period products.

Affordable housing is not just a collection of construction material and land costs. It’s a purse that must stretch to cover a rental or purchase . . . after any and all other essential costs have been plucked out. Food and utility costs are some obvious essentials.

This series of articles covers essential costs or benefits that might not seem so obvious, but nonetheless, depending on how they are structured, can turn affordable housing into unaffordable housing.

Period Products

In “developed” countries, there are basic human health needs that are satisfied by community. Clean water is a common example, with public drinking fountains to be found everywhere in some countries. Where local governments do not directly provide general access, the burden is generally carried by institutions such as schools, as well as by private business. It is not expected that people will go “dry” all day long, but need water intake regularly in order to stay healthy.

One of the health supports that is often overlooked, though it is also important to health, is access to period products. The importance of these products to the health of older children is recognized (at least in terms of lip service) by education authorities. But free period products are not universal in schools, and students without access to them are found to skip classes. Their education suffers because of that lack.

The COVID pandemic, which has forced students to stay home, has shone another light on this problem. As is the case with free school lunches, missing help with period products — a small but important financial burden — has left children in poorer families with no choice to go without1.

Read more about a recent Period Equality study by hygiene provider phs Group which explores the importance of access to period products to United Kingdom schooling, in i: Covid-19 has made period poverty worse with increasing numbers of girls skipping school when on their period

Strengthening Community With A Taste Of Fulfilling Employment

Your housing authority can't help you get a dream job in green forestry! But you might be surprised. Maybe it can. And those dreams could carry you to a towards a successful career.

This is part of a series about community. Growing and sustaining a community brings benefits to the participants, provides a means of personal development and builds hope and resilience. It can also smooth the path to build more liveable, life-fulfilling housing for people with very low and no incomes. For more on the series, try: Building More Housing By Strengthening Community

In this day and age, Public/Social Housing Authorities and Associations often get a bad reputation for being unresponsive to their low- and no- income clients. Resources are often stretched by inadequate operating and maintenance budgets. Frustrated tenants wait endlessly for basic repairs.

In the United Kingdom, there has been a major government initiative to address what seems to be a universal failure of housing authorities to provide the most basic support for their tenants. In the form of a government White Paper1, it is as much suggestive of directions that housing authorities ought to move, rather a prescription of steps which must be taken.

But there are sunnier sides to tenant support in some innovative housing authorities. One example comes from the Chicago Housing Authority where an existing careers-oriented program for youth in public housing has partnered with an organization that gets teens out of home and classroom into the wider community. The objective: a taste of real-world work opportunities that may inspire a commitment to meaningful and satisfying employment.

Read more in the Chicago Sun Times: Low-income teens can learn about dream jobs in new program

Poor Grades For UK Machine “Intelligence” Serving Council Needs

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Can a computer be programmed to make fair and impartial decisions [more effectively than a human]?

It seems a reasonable enough question: can some form of computer program be designed to serve, say social housing residents, better and more fairly than humans?

Recently, the United Kingdom government published a White Paper1 calling for more council and housing association attention to the needs of social housing tenants. It therefore might be reasonable expect news about improved standards of performance from those management people responsible for interacting and responding to housing tenant needs.

Instead, the public has recently been treated to social housing horror stories such as those revealed by an ITV investigation2.

In the face of apparent “business as usual” performance by councils and their representatives, there is certainly incentive to ask whether computers might be better equipped to listen and respond to social housing tenant needs, blind to ageism, sexism and racism.

But councils may well need to look more closely at their current use of software that pretends to evaluate human needs before seizing upon computer interaction as a way to improve relations with their social housing tenants.

There is familiar saying that applies to data gathering for decision-making:
garbage in = garbage out.

In order to evaluate benefit claims, many councils are using computer software that supposedly does a better job than human assessment. In its current state however, what might be called “artificial intelligence” to evaluate council claimants is certainly artificial as well as far from intelligent.

As reported by the BBC, the software gathers all kinds of questionable data about claimants and their needs, only to deliver questionable, and sometimes far from fair evaluations. A great deal more work would seem to be necessary before any council clients, including social housing tenants, are left to the tender mercies of currently available computer software.

Read more at the BBC: Council algorithms mass profile millions, campaigners say

Own A Set Of Metric Drill Bits? No? Hang Your Head, Social Housers

Drill bits photo by Sevela.p is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

At the turn of the 20th century, what sane middle or lower class person would want to own a house? It was a time before Mr. Fixit-ness, before battery operated drills, staple guns, plastic sewer piping, pre-pasted wallpaper — all the fiddly bits of do-it-yourself mania. Those not-yet-invented work savers were essential for at least a small portion of the population who enjoy themselves with the endless round of repairs that the physics of entropy (think falling-downness) brings to home ownership.

The majority — sane, practical people — rented and let the landlord manage the upkeep. Renters were fine, upstanding, indeed very sensible, people.

And then came the age of the American Dream, and all the other National Dreams that expressed government and building industry ideas of heaven: home ownership.

Today, in many countries, a home owner is to be admired. A renter? Not so much. And if home owners are prepared to roll their eyes at the thought of inferior renters, they look very far down their noses at the poorest of renters, in particular those who rent social housing.

A recent report published in the United Kingdom explores the roots of the stigma that has become attached over the last few decades to those who live in social/public housing. Where has this attitude come from? How is it expressed? What impact does it have upon the lives of those who are stigmatized?

This report, published with reference to England and described below in a Scottish article, reflects attitudes that are quite common around the world. There are only rare exceptions, such as Vienna and Singapore, where citizens take great pride in their social housing and look kindly upon great numbers who live within it.

Read more in Scottish Housing News: New report reveals extent of social housing stigma in England

The research was carried out by researchers at the Business School at Durham University and the School of Business at the University of Leiscester. For those interested in the research methodology and more about the findings, here is a link to the full report: Stigma and Social Housing in England

The Future Of Non-Market Housing: Charitable Foundations Need To Look In The Mirror

A call to charitable foundations to reflect on the sources of their funding. It is quite possible that the funding is coming from the rents of the people foundations are trying to help. .

In the industrial revolution in England, housing conditions in big cities went from bad to worse. Crowding and disease were rampant and whole sections of cities were considered off limits to genteel folk.

Some women’s groups in the country called for reforms that would improve living and working conditions, end child labour, and so on. When they dug deeper in to the situation, the women discovered they were looking at the people who were perpetuating these horrible conditions in the mirror. They owned the poor quality housing1. Their high standard of living was partly the result of the rents tenants were paying in slums.

In the 21st century, charitable foundations have taken the place of women’s groups in high society. The foundations have social and environmental missions: end homelessness, reverse climate change and so forth. They seed supportive housing initiatives, for example, with grants and long term loans at modest interest rates.

Where does the money come from? Investment income. Where does the investment income come from? In the United States, at least some of it comes from private equity firms that bought up bundles of foreclosed homes after the 2008 mortgage crisis. Ouch!

Fannie Mae2 assisted private equity firms to buy up bundles of foreclosed properties. Wait a minute. Isn’t Fannie Mae’s job to help ordinary people to buy housing? Yes. But, in the foreclosure crisis, there was overwhelming concern that the real estate market would continue its downward spiral. Fannie Mae was given the green light to stabilize the market by selling bundles of foreclosed properties at discounted prices. Private equity firms stepped in. In other words, government decisions facilitated the purchases. Double ouch!

So, let us get this straight. People who used to own their homes are now paying rent to large private equity firms. A tiny portion of profit from those firms is being flowed through charitable foundations in the form of grants and loans. Some of these grants and loans are going to community agencies that are working to end homelessness, build supportive housing, and put together deals to build temporary affordable housing with LIHTC funding.

That’s correct.

This looks a lot like those women’s societies in England in the 18th century. How depressing.

Apparently charitable foundations are not completely blind to their behaviour. Here’s an article that ends with recommendations about what charitable foundations and governments could do to flow much more money directly to agencies that are trying to make things better on the housing front. It applies to the U.S., but is worthwhile reading in other jurisdictions where charitable foundations are engaged in activities to prevent and end homelessness. Read more at NPR: Trouble in Paradigm

Nor is the world of foundation finance completely homogeneous. Here are two stories from NEXT CITY about community foundations that are looking to re-purpose their investments: This Community Foundation Wants to Change the Face of Who Controls Wealth, and More Foundations Finally Looking Beyond Grants to Advance Racial Equity

Scotland Steps Up On Social Rent Housing

A new social housing development under construction in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has issued a 20 year housing policy. This time frame, which extends well beyond typical election cycles, is unusual in itself. The document states unequivocally that the frame is necessary because it simply takes time to assemble the necessary elements (financing, planning, construction, etc.) to achieve its program.

The program calls for building 100,000 homes by 2030, with 70,000 of them being for social rent (non-market housing where residents will pay rent according to their income). This represents a significant departure in program from the various public-private-partnership strategies that have characterized “affordable” housing programs in the United Kingdom. Scotland has been increasing its capacity to build social rent homes and the goal of 70,000 social rent units is a significant expansion.

The plan is also noteworthy in its intention to integrate with other government commitments to meet: 1) emission reductions targets, and 2) the human right to adequate housing.

You can read the full housing program here: Housing to 2040

One of the key issues when a government makes such significant commitments is monitoring progress1. To this end, Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers has been assessing the information that will be needed to monitor progress. Here’s a report about their efforts, which focus on the right to adequate housing as well as the extent to which such information is even being collected.

The report is a useful starting point for advocates and policy and decision makers in Scotland, but also in other jurisdictions that are intent on pinning down the extent of the housing crisis for people with very low and no incomes. Read more in The UK Collaborative Centre For Housing Evidence: The Right To Adequate Housing: Are We Focusing On What Matters?

Union-Built Housing? Vancouver Baby-Steps Towards A Nordic Solution

Unions inspire this apartment building in Sweden and a new one under construction in Vancouver

In North America, particularly the U.S., unions have suffered badly as “small” governments, no longer neutral arbiters, have promoted excessively friendly partnerships with business to achieve social objectives.

At the same time, union members, even while gainfully employed, are suffering along with all of the many workers who are losing access to housing they can afford. In Vancouver, B.C. with its housing prices driven ever upwards, the integrity of the entire local school system is threatened when the current trend in housing cost drives teachers out of town1.

Vancouver’s business and investment-friendly local government is confronting this uncomfortable reality. Council has recently approved a teacher’s union plan to begin building housing to support entry-level teachers with their lower salaries. Could such schemes work for other union workers? Read more in the Vancouver Sun: Dan Fumano: Union locals develop housing for Vancouver teachers

So what’s all this about baby-steps and “Nordic” solutions? It’s hopeful speculation for a future is which unions might play a critical part.

Over many decades, Sweden has evolved a mechanism for maintaining reasonable housing prices. Tenant unions play an enormously important role in this process as bargaining agents on behalf of renters to set rental price limits on a national basis.

Alas, business-friendly government appears to be undermining the hard-earned power of tenant unions to balance the profit demands of Swedish landlords and investment speculators. Read more in JACOBIN: Sweden’s Collective Bargaining for Rents Must Be Defended

Social Housing: You Are Where You Park, So Make That Park Yours

A Sierra Club hike, circa 1970's. The Club, long a defender of the outdoors, is turning its attention to equity issues in urban parks.

Energy efficiency is not the only important green future for us all. We should also look to health benefits of biophillia.

Biophillia is a fancy word to describe the positive impact that nature and green space have upon human well-being. The notion itself is nothing new. People have believed it to be true for well over a hundred years. Science backs up some of their hopeful thinking.

The following article from the Sierra Club explores the idea, particularly in relation to the design of parkland and green space in urban neighbourhoods.

Threaded through this exploration is a notion of critical importance to those who live in social housing or are otherwise housed in low income neighbourhoods: the success of biophilia projects is strongly linked to the ideas of those who design it.

“Lived experience” is counting for more and more value in the refurbishment of old housing and the design of new. Once voiceless social housing residents are being given opportunities to make an impact on the future of neighbourhoods and communities.

The underlying message: speak up about what you and your neighbours want from green space. Let your wishes guide biophillia to produce health benefits for you and your neighbours, not some other group of people, however much expertise, experience etc. they may wish to exercise. Read more at Sierra: Who’s the Green City for, Really?

The Sierra Club’s view of urban parks and their relationship to health and to different social classes is largely a contemporary one. An in-depth look at the historic development of parks in New York city traces a centuries-old tension between, on one hand, those with the financial wherewithal to create parks and consider them exclusive to the wealthier classes. On the other hand, these attitudes were countered by robust push-back from the lower classes who pressed their rights to enjoy these attractive green spaces. Read more in the Indypendent: Parks for the People

The Green Challenge For Social Housing Apartments (And Others)

Gas stoves are great at boiling water. But they spew greenhouse gases and put children at increased risk of asthma and other health issues.

What do you think of the changes that will need to happen to your apartment by 2030, whether social housing or free market housing?

If you are roughly 79,999th on the City of Toronto’s 80,000-household ten-years+ waiting list for public housing, you probably don’t think your opinion will count for much. And you may well be right.

But there are signs of recognition that even users of social housing have “lived experience” of one kind of apartment living or another. So your opinions may actually matter and are worth taking into account in the refurbishment of old buildings and the construction of new.

Otherwise, you might wonder what the future holds as a resident, a manager, a regulator or a builder of new housing. You almost certainly need to become familiar with what should change from current apartment living, as well as have a sense of what absolutely must change as regulations begin to pin down social imperatives for a “green” future.

In support of things you may want to know, and things you will need to know, here’s an extensive exploration of six issues that will influence tomorrow’s housing, in GIZMODO: How to Fix Apartments

Domestic Violence Costs Australia: Social Housing Can Help

PM's 13 Rugby 2012 photo by Mike Wightman is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Australian rugby players speak out against domestic violence.

Equity Economics, a research consultancy that supports the non-profit sector in Australia, has just issued a report that recommends adding 16,800 units to the country’s social housing stock. The homes are intended for families fleeing domestic violence1.

The report notes that although violent crimes are going down, domestic violence is on the rise. It also calculates the ongoing economic costs of violence and compares those with the economic costs and benefits of building the new social housing units. The report is well timed for Australia’s upcoming summit on domestic violence.

It is helpful to see domestic violence discussed in terms of economic costs and benefits. This is particularly timely following a year of lockdown measures which limited the spread of COVID while at the same time contributed to rising levels of domestic violence. The methodology used in the study will be of interest to people outside Australia who are working to limit domestic violence.

GOVERNMENT NEWS has a story about the report here: Social housing ‘will reduce domestic violence costs’

The report by Equity Economics can be accessed directly here: Nowhere To Go – The Benefits Of Providing Long Term Social Housing To Women That Have Experienced Domestic And Family Violence

In-Shelter Lawyer Puts Homeless Legal Help Where It’s Most Needed

Shelter for the homeless photo by MOs810 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
A homeless shelter – not where you'd expect to find a lawyer or a court room.

One80 Place is a shelter for people who experience homelessness in Charleston, South Carolina. Unusually for a shelter, it offers on-site legal services. A full time lawyer and paralegal help clients with housing related matters. Some clients are staying at the shelter: others are trying to hold on to their housing. Legal representation effectively helps clients to win their case and improve their housing situation1.

One80 Place also provides space for Homeless Court, which is designed to hear cases involving minor criminal issues, such as sleeping in a public place. Homeless Court was created to assist people who are charged to seek supportive services, rather than entering the prison system. Locating the court at the shelter makes it easier to attend hearings and avoid additional charges. It can also improve people’s chances of accessing housing by avoiding a criminal conviction.

This example will be of interest to service providers and legislators who are looking for ideas to help people who experience homelessness to access legal representation. As the name of the One80 Shelter suggests, legal representation can literally help to turn lives around.

Read more about One80 Place, and its unusual legal supports at NEXT CITY: A South Carolina Homeless Shelter Has An On-Site Lawyer to Handle Poverty

Strengthening Community: Lifting Up Local History

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Charleszetta Waddles author Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University has no known restrictions on using this file
A brief description of Charleszetta Waddles' extraordinary history is much longer than this post. Read it here.
This is part of a series about community. Growing and sustaining a community brings benefits to the participants, provides a means of personal development and builds hope and resilience. It can also smooth the path to build more liveable, life-fulfilling housing for people with very low and no incomes. For more on the series, try: Building More Housing By Strengthening Community


Legacy, legacy. We’ve been trained up to think of it as goods and wealth (historic buildings, investments, unique jewellery). So it’s understandable that we might overlook people.

People? Yes, those folks who brought us up and set us on the path to who we are today. And not the people who show up in history books. We’re talking those common garden variety parents and aunties and neighbours who surrounded us as we grew up.

What’s happening to those folks as the real estate market become increasingly commodified? No doubt some are doing very well, thank you. But others are finding themselves financially stressed, losing their homes and moving elsewhere or becoming homelessness.

If you think of housing strictly in terms of economic value, this is no big loss, but it’s surely tough on the people who are displaced, the community’s stability and their informal social support systems.

It’s a big issue for St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore. St. Ambrose started up in 1968. Today it has a wide range of programs that aim to support the social fabric that is threatened by commodification of housing. Owning and operating non-market housing is just one element. Read more about St. Ambrose’s programs in Shelterforce: Continuing the Legacy: Keeping Longtime Residents in Their Communities

Dublin City Council Flirts With Public Housing For . . . All???

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Dublin photo by tearbringer is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Dublin, Ireland from the air. Can you imagine great swaths of the city below occupied by social housing for all income levels? We can't, exactly. But it's an intriguing idea, nonetheless.

In countries that have been dominated by neoliberal thought for the past few decades, social/public Housing has been (and often still is) viewed as

  • a rental dead end in a national housing dream,
  • a failed experiment in social and racial harmony,
  • a castle for welfare kings and queens,
  • a modern Sodom and Gomorrah parcelled into drab high rise buildings, and
  • a temporary waystation for mere handfuls of hardworking homeless struggling their way towards self-sufficiency.

What then to make of the news that the capital city of a modern nation has spawned a working group of city councillors who dare to propose that social housing should be built for, and available to . . . all?

The underlying premise would seem to be that housing in the near future, built and managed by governments, would not only be truly affordable for all, but also presumably physically and socially attractive to . .  all?

These are heady thoughts, particularly in a modern free enterprise society. Read more in The Dublin Inquirer: Everyone Should Have Access to Affordable Public Housing, Council Working Group Proposes

Missoula, Montana Is Making Permanent A Mobile Mental Health Response Pilot

View of Missoula photo by Keith Ewing is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Missoula, Montana. No matter how beautiful, city streets can be a hellscape for someone with mental health issues.

Roughly one in three people who are chronically homeless1 live with mental illness. They are joined by a smaller percentage of people who have housing and attempt to cope there.

When a crisis occurs, inside or out, who intervenes and helps a sufferer out, or at least tries to? Many cities and regions have sad stories about people experiencing a mental health crisis who encounter untrained professionals or simply good samaritans. Misunderstandings happen. Actions are misinterpreted. Tragic and unnecessary deaths occur.

Good news then from Missoula, Montana.

Over 118,000 people live in Missoula, Montana’s metropolitan area. It has two mobile outreach teams staffed with trained mental health professionals, who have been working on a trial basis since November 2020. The teams respond when someone who is homeless is experiencing mental distress and someone has called 911.

You wouldn’t expect, when activating this service, that the person in distress would already know the professional called to help. But that’s what happened for one 19 year old who had tested positive for COVID, plunging her into a mental health crisis. Having a familiar and supportive face appear in a crowd of strangers in uniforms (think police and paramedics) immediately lowered her stress levels, not to mention that of the emergency responders.

Communities across the U.S. and around the world are experimenting with a variety of mobile outreach approaches2. The reason for celebrating Missoula’s mobile outreach? They’ve decided to make the team permanent. Read more at NEXTCITY: Missoula, Montana Is Making Its Mobile Mental Health Response Pilot Permanent

Housing & Infrastructure: Big Democrat Cities All Hat And No Cattle?

Texas Saying photo by Alan Levine is licensed under CC ZERO 1.0

However strong the several-decade influence of neoliberal “small government” philosophy, major societal needs — e.g. clean water, national road networks, housing for all — have historically been delivered by “big government” action.

The Democrat Biden administration has arrived in Washington with just such “big government” plans to address the growing national affordable housing crisis as well as sorely neglected American Infrastructure.

But is this big blue machine really up to the job? In an hour long podcast, Ezra Klein interviews Jerusalem Demsas, a journalist at Vox who specializes in writing on this issue.

Klein and Demsas identify the barriers that stand in the way of building any social infrastructure. Why, for instance, are America’s large cities, which are currently dominated by Democrat governments, unable to build the housing that is needed to end homelessness? Is it possible for local government to get out from under this problem on its own? Should higher levels of government be taking a bigger role?

Read/Listen to The Ezra Klein Show: How Blue Cities Became So Outrageously Unaffordable

Housing Equity: The Potential Of Community Land Trusts

Politicians all onside: breaking ground for a Community Land Trust in Lexington, KY, 2014

Shelterforce, which supports community development initiatives across the United States, is running a series about community land trusts.

The series includes an entry level article that explains what community land trusts are and how they operate1.

Community land trusts ought to have a lot of appeal for people with low incomes. Housing is less expensive and risk is shared. This proved beneficial in the years after the 2008 mortgage recession. In the midst of a sea of foreclosures and evictions, people who lived on land trusts emerged relatively unscathed.

COVID-19 has added to the evidence of systemic inequalities in the housing market that disadvantage black people, indigenous people and people of colour. In its series, Shelterforce looks at ways that community land trusts can overcome the equity barriers that persist in the private housing market.

Creating land trusts that overcome equity barriers requires deliberate intent. For example, community land trusts have included social equity goals in their organizational charters, and created operational structures and processes to ensure that results align with the goals2.

The series also discusses some of the impacts that community land trusts can have in the neighbourhoods and districts where they are located. For example, community land trusts have been able to mitigate some of the impacts of gentrification and helped to preserve housing stability for long term residents3.

A while back, affordablehousingaction.org introduced another series of articles about community land trusts in Europe, Africa and Australia. That series questioned whether community land trusts were a viable model for disadvantaged communities4. The Shelterforce series responds to that question with examples that are in operation across the United States. The series should be a source of inspiration to advocates, policy makers and decision makers both in the U.S. and further afield. You can find the landing page for the whole Shelterforce series here: Community Ownership Takes Center Stage

Naughty Housing Action: One Time Only? No, A Template For Activism

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Take heart, housing activists. Even the craziest schemes can work better than expected.

When Moms 4 Housing illegally occupied an Oakland, California company’s empty house, many (including affordablehousingaction.org) thought their action was fruitless. No law prevented the company from buying and selling (a.k.a. flipping) housing. No law prevented the company from leaving those houses empty and idle while it owned them.

The obvious expectation? Authorities would be called in to eject the homeless moms and their children back onto the streets. But events unfolded in a way that nobody, not the moms, nor the company, nor the relevant government authorities expected1.

Far from a fruitless gesture, the Moms 4 Housing action has become a template for aggressively attacking the very foundations of California’s housing crises.

Read more at ShelterforceHomeless Mothers in California Show How Radical Housing Activism Becomes Lasting Change

Pressing On With An Eviction Diversion Program That Works

Eviction NOTICE photo by rickonine is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
'Herewith Must Vacate . . . Tresspass . . . By Order of . . . Bewildering legal processes torpedo 9 out 10 of tenants who alone contest an eviction in court. It doesn't have to be this way.

Matthew Desmond came to our attention when “Evicted” — his book on the subject — was published in 2016. He’s an expert on eviction as well as the destructive impacts it has for people who are evicted1. He’s probably applauding a recent decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which extends a unique eviction diversion program in Philadelphia.

The eviction diversion program requires landlords and tenants to participate in a mediation session before the landlord can file for eviction. It was implemented during COVID to help prevent evictions triggered by the economic shutdown. The city of Philadelphia also provided rental assistance funds, which could be accessed through mediation to help make good on outstanding arrears.

The program has prevented evictions in over 90% of the cases where mediation took place. With this track record, it’s no wonder the judge extended the program until the end of August.

The following article provides details of a program worth replicating in other communities. Read more in Philly Voice: Pa. Supreme Court extends Philly’s eviction diversion program, requiring landlord-tenant mediation

Affordable Housing Details You Might Not Have Considered: Education Bonds

"For Baby's Future Buy War Bonds" photo by Unknown is in the public domain/ click on source for details
Baby Bonds began as War Bonds, then some marketing genius realized that parents might prefer to save for their baby's future, rather than save to run a war.

Affordable housing is not just a collection of construction material and land costs. It’s a purse that must stretch to cover a rental or purchase . . . after any and all other essential costs have been plucked out. Food and utility costs are some obvious essentials.

This series of articles covers essential costs or benefits that might not seem so obvious, but nonetheless, depending on how they are structured, can turn affordable housing into unaffordable housing.

Education Bonds

Today’s housing-burdened, food-burdened, health-burdened, energy-burdened parents have few resources to lift their children towards a more equitable future in society. These combined burdens affect black, indigenous and visible minority households disproportionately.

One possible solution for helping to “level up” opportunities for children in low income families: look beyond the poverty that holds them back in their early years.

Programs in New York City and Connecticut are endowing children with safe investments that will mature when they become adults, giving them a financial lift towards equality to help fulfill their hopes and dreams, as well as those of their family and parents.

As for the governments, they usually wish to borrow money by offering the safest kinds of savings over long periods of time. Fighting a war requires a long payback time, as does raising children.

NYC and Connecticut are creating a wrinkle on the cleverness of Baby Bonds. They manage the long term borrowing they need to do by finding the money in their own pockets, in the process helping to create a more equitable future the young of their poorest citizens.

Read more in BNN Bloomberg: NYC, Connecticut Start ‘Baby Bond’ Programs to Shrink Inequality

Kill Housing Codes & ByLaws To Create Affordability? Not Likely.

Bylaw! photo by Marcel Schoenhardt is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
The powerful local alligator lobby are working hard to strike down bylaw 2202.

A detailed article in The Guardian unpacks the issue of relaxing building codes and neighbourhood bylaws in the United Kingdom. Removing this unnecessary “government interference” will allow the private building industry to create a flood of affordable housing. The article is worth a read in any country in which governments extol the benefits of private sector profiteering to solve a national housing crisis.

The foundation of  this flood of cheaper housing is the supposed “law” of supply and demand. Increase the supply of . . . whatever. Prices will then fall. That simplistic notion can successfully address the United Kingdom’s affordable housing crisis.

Too bad it won’t work. That’s because the private sector is being “incentivized” to build more housing. And the government is not incentivizing with cash. Instead they are offering to lower building standards.

Bearing in mind that codes and by-laws control building standards, it follows that prices will fall because the private sector will be allowed to build a lot crappier, but less expensive, housing. Right?

Wrong. The private sector does not want to build a lot more housing, crap or otherwise. Why? Because it will cause housing prices to fall. Developers have read the basic theory of supply and demand, too. Prices fall? For developers, what a mistake! Inevitably, it means less profit.

The private building industry prefers to build fewer, more expensive houses. More profit in it, if they can find someone to buy those houses. And they can.

Speculators on- and off-shore invest in housing, not to solve affordable shelter crises but to flip houses for profit. Let the government wring its hands about unaffordable shelter. Housing developers don’t care if they can sell — not to shelter-seekers, but to investors.

In fact, they can make even more money if they sell those investors unsafe, socially unsuitable housing because governments are kind enough to ease bylaws, allowing developers to build more cheaply. In any case, since most of those desperate for affordable housing can’t afford to outbid speculators, they won’t get a look-in at the housing that is being built to new, crap standards.

So, should anybody celebrate the expectation that free market builders will suddenly change their spots in the face of trashed by-laws and building codes? Will developers selflessly abandon their profit motives to create oodles of crappier housing in order to solve an affordable housing crisis?

Will they, heck!

Read more in The Guardian: Liberalise planning rules to fix a housing crisis – sounds logical, but it won’t work

To Be, Or Not To Be Housed. A Soliloquy On Eviction And Death

Old House photo by Paulius Malinovskis is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The Grim Reaper photo by Paul Kline is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What makes a human being healthy, with a long life expectancy? There are as many answers as there are proponents of important influences. Modern medicine (including vaccination) has the biggest lobby touting its importance. But good nutrition and clean water clearly play important — if not more important — roles, along with personal lifestyles, exercise, and so on.

These days, there is an increasingly ignored also-ran in the human aspiration to live a long, healthy life: shelter.

We all know that in some climates, seasonal shelter is absolutely essential for physical health. But it may well be that not enough heed is paid to mental health as a factor in a lengthy, healthy life.

Regardless of whether shelter is universally acknowledged as a human right, there is more than enough evidence it is a human necessity.

The COVID pandemic is bringing us the latest, sad confirmation that a lack of shelter, even it promises to be only momentary, can be a life-shortening event. Read more at SPECTRUM NEWS 1:  UCLA-Led Study Finds COVID Deaths Increased When Eviction Mora­to­riums Expired

Ireland Subsidizes Middle Class Renters Away From Free Market

Balbriggan, Ireland, in 2012, where placards opposed an austerity budget. In 2021, 25 government subsidized "cost rental" homes have become available in Balbriggan for moderate income households to rent.

It is certainly hard these days, indeed increasingly impossible, for those with the lowest or no incomes to afford housing at all. Government subsidized housing, under many names such as “public,” “social,” “state,” and “council,” are wait-listed delirium dreams, years or decades away — a fantasy future for most — nearly everywhere.

On top of this problem, which is a major focus of our posts, there is an acknowledged and growing problem for lower middle class individuals and families. Housing costs are going up faster than incomes. Housing stability is threatened or units at reasonable rents (compared to income) aren’t available.

Focusing on this group of more reliable voters, many governments have accordingly broken down regular market housing into a collection of “affordabilities,” making the term “affordable” virtually meaningless. The result has been the scattering of pots of government subsidies to entice developers to build for certain housing cost ranges relative to community average, or for particular income ranges. Some argue that these taxpayer-contributed government subsidies encourage investors, which drives up housing costs in general.

Of this government expenditure, little if any has been designed to remove the housing from the inevitable increases in free market housing prices and rents.

Ireland has come up with a non-free market approach for those with a little — not a lot — more money. This scheme, termed “cost rental”1 has been in the works for some time, but the fruits of the government’s experiment are only just coming available. First results suggest it will be an attractive program. Read more in The Irish Times: More than 500 people apply for 25 homes in State’s first cost-rental scheme

Can Investor-Owned Empty Homes Solve A Toronto Housing Crisis?

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toronto photo by VV Nincic is licensed under CC BY 2.0
An ingenious study by an independent Toronto photographer tracked the use (or lack of it) of indoor lights in condos to suggest many more were empty than official estimates.

Vancouver, B.C., is pretty consistently in the top two of the World’s most expensive places to live. The reasons for its high housing costs are many. One significant problem area: Vancouver is a lure for off-shore investors who speculate in the housing market.

With affordable housing in that city in desperately short supply1 the amount of investment property that lies unoccupied in Vancouver has attracted considerable attention. Investors make so much money flipping houses, they can’t be bothered with the hassle of renting their holdings out. It’s a small loss to take on the way to making big resale profits.

This issue has recently been addressed by a British Columbia tax of 1% on vacant housing2. Is this a worthwhile step to take for other cities plagued with housing speculation problems? British Columbia’s vacant homes tax has certainly raised money.

Has it brought a significant amount of housing back onto the market, or do those investor-owned homes still lie vacant? Perhaps in answer to this question, the tax is rising 3% this year.

The City of Toronto has taken a similar plunge (not reflected in the headline of the article below). It chose a 1% tax. Read an analysis of the issue and how council’s decision might provide a tax solution at NOW Toronto: Op-ed: Toronto will soon tax vacant homes, but it’s not enough to stem the rental crisis

Modern Marie Antoinette’s Poor Housing Tenants: Let Them Eat E-Bikes!

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Cube Mountain ebike photo by Tony Hisgett is licensed under CC BY 2.0
E-Bike: food for social housing thought, worth chewing over.

People should only get what they deserve. This “survival of the fittest” mantra has dominated neo-liberal thinking for several decades. It pervades the policies of America’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

A new progressive-backed Democrat Administration yet shows little sign of changing those spots. HUD’s new Secretary, Marcia Fudge, has declared that America’s dilapidated public housing should be viewed as no more than way station for the least fortunate.

A new program inherited from the previous administration amply supports her viewpoint, with continuous test-based qualification for tenancy. Built upon the rosy, nonsensical premise that all citizens are given equal opportunities in life, those who have fallen upon hard times have only themselves to blame.

Applying this principle, all who need housing or food or other essential life supports — e.g. social housing tenants — are likely grifters reaping unjust rewards.

A HUD pilot project addresses those who might claim otherwise by demanding that they must continually prove they are worthy of the nation’s begrudging charity. Otherwise they will be booted to the curb, where all welfare kings and queens belong1.

Thankfully, such depressing national self-evaluation is not universal. Here’s a considerably more optimistic viewpoint from New Zealand of government support for low and no income social housing residents. Read more at Star News: Christchurch social housing tenants to get e-bikes, electric cars

Housing: Mind Your Own Business, Or . . . Everyone’s Infrastructure?

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Stamp celebrating the 175th anniversary of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Will the right to adequate housing eventually be included?

Infrastructure? The notion was born out of not-to-be-ignored community health needs such as clean water to prevent epidemics. It expanded to include business needs (safe highways to transport goods widely). As time went by, infrastructure further expanded to include both health needs and business needs (waste removal, electricity grids). And in America now, thanks to the Biden administration’s megabuck infrastructure proposals, it might expand further to include social and economic family needs (e.g. day care support).

So where does housing, also proposed to receive support as “infrastructure” in the Biden administration plans, fit into the concept of infrastructure?

Well, it has historically received continued government attention and support, if such support could be seen as a qualification for admission to the “infrastructure club.”

But in America, housing is viewed (at the very least by a considerable segment of the population who can easily afford it) as part of a “rugged self-made individual” perception of responsible citizenship. If you haven’t self-made your way into a cozy house, you don’t really deserve it.

It is certainly not your selfish “human right,” to be demanded from the hardworking, upstanding citizenry with whom you share a community. Besides, if the framers of the Constitution had identified it as a citizen’s right, they would have included it in that document. But they didn’t, end of story.

Except the fathers of the American Constitution might have had some difficulty perceiving a world in which housing is a commodity being traded in its population, including its corporate citizens. Thanks to the promotion of the American Dream, every homeowner becomes an investor, dependent on the value of a home forever rising.

Has housing becoming such an expensive and draining investor gambling chip that it at last needs to be recognized as a health burden and requires protection by government as infrastructure?

One of America’s widely-followed and respected news institutions proposed to address the question. Or does it ask the question, then simply dodge an answer? Read more at NBC NEWS: Are homes infrastructure? Biden’s proposal says better housing policy will improve access, affordability

What is RAD? Is It A Brave New Future For American Public Housing?

Managing the Unmanageable? America hopes that RAD can do it better.

The U.S. Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program is a hopeful attempt to combine a failing national housing voucher program with the profound failure of American public housing management and upkeep by non-profit housing authorities.

The project was to conceived to pass off to profit-oriented private sector agencies the responsibility of upkeep and management of public housing. For this service they would be paid with guaranteed Housing Choice (a.k.a. Section 8) dollars, a program that has been continually unsuccessful at enticing private landlords to accept low and no income clients of the Department of Housing And Urban Development (HUD).

Supposedly, RAD could add the profit requirements of private enterprise to the cost of a pair of housing programs that neither HUD, nor non-profit local housing authorities, have been able successfully operate with the available funding.

Theoretically at least, the hoped-for result? Thanks to arcane free market financial gymnastics practised over time, RAD would result in a bigger and better bang for the federal buck.

Created as a pilot for testing by the Obama administration, it super-satisfied the Trump administration’s perceptions of how government hands-off policies could depend on the private sector to do a cheaper, better job. As a result, RAD went rogue.

Demonstration? No significant evaluation of the RAD pilot project has been deemed to be needed1. Consequently, in a few short years RAD has been implemented at a substantial number of the nation’s public housing projects. The government is — no proof necessary — happy with how it works. Private partners are happy with how it works. Who else matters?

Oh, yes. The tenants.

Let’s concentrate on the those who live in these new public-owned, privately-managed RAD-converted public housing projects2. What about them?

It seems they may have an entirely different interpretation of a “successful” public housing finance model. Read more in The American Prospect: Public Housing Is Going Private—and Residents Are Fighting Back

Montreal’s “Musical Chair” Rental Homes Tell Homelessness Like It Is

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With so many people moving on the same day, Montréal has a long tradition of do-it-youself.

Canada’s second largest city, Montréal, has some features rare to the North American continent. Besides its Francophone culture, it is a city dominated by renters. And, truly unique among North American cities with large rental populations, a big portion of its rental population sign leases beginning on the 1st of July. That’s Moving Day in Montréal, one truly worthy of capital letters.

Not long ago, with a reasonable vacancy rate and plenty of units available at low rents, an annual move in Montréal was not fraught with anxiety. There were more than enough apartments to go around. Not any more however. Montréal, like much of the rest of the world, is suffering from a lack of housing, and particularly, a lack of housing that is affordable for people with very low incomes1.

Montréal’s situation casts an important light on the nature of homelessness. Over recent years, it has been politically convenient for both urban citizens and their leaders to view homelessness as a chronic social disease, or rather the sum of several diseases — physical illness, mental illness, and drug use.

Those chronically homeless who actually do fall into such health categories are often highly visible and relatively few in number. They generate knee-jerk city-government cosmetic solutions, largely revolving around shooing them somewhere else, coerced by fines they cannot pay, or by the threat of incarceration that is a ridiculously expensive last resort.

But Montréal’s “musical lease” day provides a much more meaningful understanding of the face of homelessness that is currently sweeping nations around the world. At the end of July 1, when the music stops, who is sitting comfortably in an apartment. And who is not?

This year there were 128 households who no longer had a home. A day previously, June 30, they were exactly the same as everybody else about to participate in a move. By the end of the day, July 1, they were homeless.

It is this homeless crisis that is threatening to destabilize our urban societies, not the relatively smaller chronic homelessness problem, though it indeed demands something more useful than shooing: often complex and long-term social interventions.

But the face of unaffordability driven by housing speculation is different. It is the face of your next door neighbour waving hi to you the day before, homeless the next. The solution is not a drug treatment program or something similar. The solution is inescapably more affordable housing.

Read about the growing stresses of Montréal’s unique annual Moving Day at Global News: After tough moving day, calls grow for more affordable housing in Quebec

Home Based Public Housing Job Training By Torch Light

Welding Class photo by Drew Coffman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hard to imagine benefits from a pandemic. But in the field of education, the reality of structured formal training at home have suggested new horizons for educational opportunity.

Home schooling has a long tradition of proving that, for whatever the reasons, formal education can take place outside institutional settings. With the advent of the internet, home schooling has become more widespread and easy to manage, resulting in virtual schools and universities offering serious training at a distance.

The pandemic has further broadened educational horizons by suggesting that even conventional classroom teaching can to some degree imported into the home via high speed internet.

There are, however, many skills that require “hands on” learning. Springing to mind are high school and university chemistry laboratory work, as well as vocational training essential for such as auto mechanics and . . . welding?

Welding indeed! Imagine a mail-order course that delivers a tank of acetylene, a tank of oxygen, a welding torch and do-it-yourself instructions for a parent to teach the teenage kids.

Boom!

Surely a home-based welding course is an absurd idea! But not so, it seems.

The following article describes an experimental welding course tested by people who were homeless (described as “non-contained” in the article linked below), and further expanded into a mobile classroom/workshop vocational course delivered at public housing projects1.

Pizza delivery to your doorstep? How about a welding course with certification? Read more about a unique California program in CALIFORNIA News Times: Mobile Welding Training Program for Residents of Public Housing

Internet Inequality: Ugly Redlining Defines American Have-Nots

Copyright © affordablehousingaction.org. All Rights reserved.
Excluded from a high speed internet neighbourhood

In America during the last century, bank lending practices discriminated against poor neighbourhoods, often predominantly black. The process became known as “redlining.” The term comes from insurance maps where red lines identified selected neighbourhoods as “no-go” zones for mortgage lending and insurance.

America has always bent over backwards to avoid interfering with the way businesses “go about their business.” And governments at all levels have been particularly deferential to powerful banks. Nevertheless, the discriminatory power of redlining clearly prevented equality of opportunity for all Americans. It meant that climbing on the housing ladder as a route to prosperity was an impossible dream for the poorest in general, and Blacks in particular.

The federal government took action starting in 1968. A series of stick and carrot laws and programs since then have erased at least the perception of redlining, while not entirely limiting its practice1.

Meanwhile, a new inequality has emerged, resulting in a new form of redlining. It has been much exacerbated by the stay-at-home requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. High speed internet access has emerged as a new national infrastructure need, one that is essential to allow equality of opportunity for all, both for education and employment purposes.

Once again, redlining rears its ugly head, with high speed provision currently an unregulated business. There are few or no legal requirements for internet service to provide high speed internet to all neighbourhoods. Redlining disadvantages public housing and other neighbourhoods where people with very low incomes live. Black tenants and people of colour are being excluded yet again.

Read more at CNET: The broadband gap’s dirty secret: Redlining still exists in digital form

Sacramento Flirts With Notion Of “Mandated” Housing For Homeless


The film Field of Dreams featured a famous prediction: “If you build it, they will come,” referring to an unlikely baseball stadium in a rural American cornfield.

The Mayor of Sacramento, California has a new, related concept in order to house California’s growing numbers of homeless. His proposal: “If we build it, they MUST come.”

Progressives are delighted with the idea that a city might legally require housing for the homeless to be built immediately. It’s not just a fluffy council resolution about a long-term city aspiration that might, or might not, one day be realized.

As expressed by the mayor, however, this concept of fulfilling an actual right to housing has a serious catch.

If homeless, you MUST come to this housing? Goodness, how does that idea sit with all freedom-loving Americans (Are there any other kind?).

Because . . what actually is “housing” and who gets to define and answer that question?

A weatherproof roof overhead enclosing at least a warm (possibly not air conditioned) space protecting against rain and snow? Sure.

But a decent quality sleeping bag can do that. MUST a homeless person “move in” to a waterproof sleeping bag mandated as one “home” amongst many others spaced across a vacant lot? The suggestion is a ridiculous extreme, but leads towards the difficult scope of the problem. What about a shack with a good tin roof?

And if giant dormitories divided by curtains are deemed to be an answer, MUST the people who avoid shelter life and its hazards (including violence) nevertheless stay in an assigned bed and be beaten up regularly?

As for homeless parents with children . . . where to begin?

While it may be convenient to view the homeless as a collection of reprobates with substance use and/or mental health problems, the majority are simply folks too poor to afford a home. Will this mandated housing be suitable for any American, and where appropriate, any American family?

Read more about a Sacramento city proposal with lots to love, and lots to hate about it, at Fox News: Sacramento Mulls a New Homeless Strategy: Legally Mandating Housing

Will Buffalo, N.Y. Find Its Next Mayor Under Its Bed?

When India Walton is welcomed from beneath a Buffalo bed (and cleaned of dust bunnies), will she resemble this man?

Under the bed? You know. That uniquely American hangout of Reds, Commies, Socialists, Cold War Boogymen, World Domination Ambitions, Nuclear Holocaust Dreams, Back Garden Bomb Shelters. And Bernie Sanders.

Having (accidentally?) nominated a died-in-the-wool socialist as the democratic candidate for mayor of their city, citizens of Buffalo, New York are now casting about for a local political template that will help relieve the uncertainty of their possible future.

They need go no further than neighbouring Vermont, where four decades ago, in a time still tinged by the star and sickle of the Soviet Union, Bernie Sanders reigned as the socialist Mayor of Burlington. He achieved some remarkable successes, particularly in the world of affordable housing.

What might Buffalonians look forward if they elect India Walton, a democratic socialist, to be their mayor? Read more about how Burlington survived, indeed prospered, under a not-so-cast-iron socialist thumb, in THE BUFFALO NEWS: Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders: a socialist – and a surprise.

A Price Of Mixed Income Neighbourhoods: Soulless Density


What’s a budget-conscious local government council to do? Spending on social housing is to be avoided at all costs, even when the locality already owns the land. It’s too expensive when nobody shares the costs.

But the private housing developers sector WILL throw dollars into the hat, if the lion’s share of desperately needed housing is their’s to own and profit from. Then, sure, some social housing can come along for the ride.

“No,” argues a bargain-hungry council with social housing a most pressing concern. Reluctantly they may allow that social housing doesn’t have to increase, but everything already there must stay or be rebuilt.

With competing demands, something’s got to give.

That would be elbow room.

Does a liveable community really deserve to suffer such a claustrophobic compromise? For an Australian analysis of this question, read more in the The Sydney Morning Post: Meet your Waterloo: the public realm deserves better than this airbrushed inner-city Camelot

Stand And Deliver, Landlord! Berlin is Considering Legal Highway Robbery

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Berlin, Germany is a city/state of many renters, ever-rising rents, and few means for renters to challenge the economic self-interests of landlords.

Years of protests about increasingly unaffordable rents across the entire city/state finally led to the Berlin government adopting a rent control law — an apparent victory for affordable housing advocates1.

Alas, the victory celebration was premature. The German Supreme court struck down the new rent cap law as unconstitutional2. Can the profit-driven excesses of free market landlords ever be controlled?

If not, one possible solution has been to use a well-established constitutional right of German governments to simply seize land that they need. This principle has national blessing in many countries, where it is known by a variety of terms such as “Eminent Domain.” This “supreme” right of governments has historically been deemed essential to clear the way for public works of fundamental social importance: urban renewal, sewage plants, or interstate highways, for example.

Is there a public will to declare affordable housing to be of fundamental importance to a state or nation, allowing land and/or buildings to be seized unilaterally (with suitable compensation for the loss to its owner)3?

Berlin is now planning on finding out. Read more in The Architect’s Newspaper: Berlin will hold referendum on forced acquisition of apartments from large landlords

How Government Landlords Can Trash The Value Of Co-op Housing

The City of Vancouver, B.C. owns the land under False Creek South, a 1970's mixed development of social housing, co-ops and condominiums. Leases come due beginning in 2025.

Housing Co-ops are a tried and true means of creating affordable housing and shielding that affordability by keeping the enterprise away from the free market. Co-ops can protect both rents as well as ownership of units.

The protection from the market has been an attraction for years, but co-op construction has not really boomed anywhere in North America, in part due to the fact that it can be difficult to create a legal structure based on many differing laws in many and varied jurisdictions1.

In spite of this drawback, the speculator-driven housing price increases that are occurring worldwide have triggered renewed interest in the affordable housing security benefits that can be achieved with co-ops.

Land ownership is one key to its long term affordability. A recent development in the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, emphasizes just how important this is.

Joint ownership of the land by the co-operative occupants is, needless to say, the most secure guarantee of maintaining affordability outside of the free market. A land trust can also guarantee long-term security.

What about local government land ownership? That can make the co-op a city tenant. It might be easy to believe that a city such as Vancouver, with world-beating housing costs and a desperate need for affordable housing, would be an ideal landlord, anxious (unlike private landlords) to see housing prices and rents stay low.

But with a number of co-op leases expiring, the city of Vancouver is reconsidering its options as landlord. Its most recent proposal suggests that it would be wise never to trust a government to protect the affordability of housing. Author of a study “Social Benefits of Co-operative Housing: Housing Co-ops’ Contribution to the Creation of Integrated Affordable Complete Communities,” Professor Marc White unpacks the problem in the Vancouver Sun: What exactly are housing co-ops and who do they house in Vancouver?

A Legal Centre That Enables Land Trusts And Co-operative Housing

A sign celebrating the long term affordability of student cooperative housing.

Sprinkled across the western world there are housing cooperatives, community land trusts, and other forms of collective ownership and decision making. Elsewhere, we’ve discussed some of the benefits of these approaches which include: reducing housing costs, sharing risk, and providing non-market housing1.

Despite these attractive features, they aren’t easy to start up. One of the big barriers is creating the legal agreements to incorporate these entities. Land use regulations, which typically prohibit collective ownership, are another barrier.

So here’s some good news: there’s a law centre, based in Oakland California, that is dedicated to matters of collective ownership. The Sustainable Economies Law Center works on the legal agreements that help marginalized communities to create homes which operate using collective ownership and decision making.

You might wonder at the merits of collective decision making in the aftermath of the condo collapse in Florida. But as Natasha Lennard, writing in The Intercept argues, part of the reason for the collapse lies in the legal structures that give preference to profit over human safety: Miami Building Collapse Shows Tragic Costs of Neoliberal Deregulation. From this standpoint, the Susainable Economies Law Center’s work, which seeks to build in protections for people, makes a lot of sense.

The Center’s work extends beyond individual enterprises to include public policy. For example, the California legislature approved Bill 1079, which gives non-profits and co-operatives more opportunity to bid on housing as it comes up for sale. The Center worked alongside the Moms 4 Housing campaign2, which gave rise to the bill. It also participated in the review process as the bill made its way through the legislature.

The Center’s team has also prepared a survey of all kinds of collective and cooperative initiatives in other countries. It is published here: Policies for Shareable Cities: A Policy Primer for Urban Leaders The section on housing starts on page 22.

What Do London, UK & Kugluktuk, Nunavut, Canada Have In Common?

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Kugluktuk, Nunavut photo by Tristan Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Honestly, it's hard to see what it has in common with London, England.

Besides a rather large number of things the two locations do not share, one they do is local councils prepared to risk human lives by tinkering with building codes in order to save money.

In London, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea approved cladding that did not meet contemporary safety standards for high rise housing buildings. The tragedy of the fire at Grenfell Tower shocked the entire world. The repercussions from this event continue to impact thousands upon thousands of lives.

Kugluktuk, Nunavut is like most communities in the Canadian Arctic, where social housing is vital to low and no income citizens. It is also in short supply and poor condition1. There, the world waits for the shoe to drop after the local council approved construction of buildings with only one exit. No doubt a handful or two of deaths will not make quite the splash of Grenfell Tower on the world stage.

In the currently divided philosophies of the world’s left/right politics, extreme attitudes to by-laws and building codes seem carved in stone. On the right they are seen as largely pointless nuisances that interfere with “progress.”

The left is biased in its own way against the ability of private businesses to make decisions except as they relate to costs and benefits. And yet public institutions — the London Borough of Kensington and the Town Council of Kugluktuk — seem just as capable of blithely examining fire safety codes on a cost/benefit basis and rejecting them as “inconveniently” too expensive.

Which brings us to a third city in an unlikely partnership with Kugluktuk and London — greater Miami, where the consequences of both homeowner parsimony and government acquiescence have led to the tragic collapse of a high rise condominium building. It may ultimately have far greater repercussions than the Grenfell Tower disaster. Read more in The Intercept, which is keen to place the blame on neoliberal “hands off free enterprise” politics: Miami Building Collapse Shows Tragic Costs of Neoliberal Deregulation

“Why didn’t they listen to us?” has been the ongoing cry of Grenfell Tower survivors in London. (The cry is ongoing because the not-listening has also been ongoing.)

By contrast, those who have been directly affected by the impact of the Miami building collapse are paying the price for not more forcefully speaking out, if they dared to identify the problems at all, given the cost of fixing them. Local government seems to have been complicit by ignoring its own regulations.

As to the voices of those occupying the new Kugluktuk buildings, it is admittedly speculation but unlikely that anyone asked any of them what they thought of new single-door fire exit strategies.

What’s to be done to ensure that, at the very least, changes to safety by-laws and building codes or serious violations of them offer some meaningful say to those who live and die by them? Read more in nunavut news: ‘It’s a hazard’; mayor, MLA warn of danger in houses with a single exit

U.S. Social Insurance: Where That Octopus Might Touch You

octopus photo by Angela is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’re not American, the country’s social insurance complex of programs will most likely not touch you at all. But this post, and the following article/report from the Brookings Institute, may provide a useful reference framework from which to explore other national social insurance safety nets for citizens.

Benefit from U.S. social insurance programs does not come in the form of one convenient check or voucher with “social insurance” printed across it. It is the sum of multiple programs1. A citizen may qualify for none, one or many of these U.S. social insurance programs.

The Brookings Institute, much of their research supported by their Hamilton Project, has broken America’s social support system into five components. The article/report linked below describes the scope and nature of support programs within these five areas. It also comments on their resilience and success in the face of COVID-19, and offers links to proposals for policy change to enhance these programs in a post-COVID world.

The five program areas are:

    • education and workforce development,
    • health coverage,
    • income support,
    • nutrition, and
    • shelter.

In the shelter section, three reforms are proposed. These are specifically intended to provide support during economic downturns. The reforms would assist low income renters, low income homeowners and agencies and businesses accessing LIHTC credits to build and/or refurbish housing.

There’s an extensive discussion of how the three shelter programs could be designed. Policy makers and decision makers are probably the intended audience for the proposed reforms. However, the report is quite readable and offers design ideas for anyone interested in helping people who are at risk of losing their housing in an economic downturn.

The following link includes a summary of all program areas from the Brookings Institute as well as their full report. Links to the background reports by the Hamilton Project are also available: The critical role of social insurance in the US and policies for reform

200 Car Headlights Shining In Your Bedroom Window: Blessing? Or Curse?

hotel new jersey photo by Kai Schreiber is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
New Jersey State Prison

Surveillance is a touchy subject in neighbourhoods where a majority of citizens have good reason to believe they are the victims of prejudice.

On the other hand, home security is a benefit that everyone appreciates.

So the 2014 test-case installation of floodlights in 12 New York City Housing Association (NYCHA) projects were bound to raise some uncomfortable questions. Who are the perpetrators that the lighting is meant to repel? Incoming lawbreakers? Or the residents themselves?

The experiment was nonetheless deemed a success, and forty more NYCHA projects have been protected by floodlights, each the equivalent of 200 car headlights1.

And that has caused a videographer to raise an important aesthetic issue. Is it possible to live in a successful, healthy, thriving community which nightly is lit up like a prison? Would more gentrified communities — also concerned about crime — ever even consider putting up with such a treatment, regardless of a shrinkage in crime rates?

Videographer Nadia Hallgren unpacks some of these issues in a Documentary short entitled Omnipresence. Read more in the New Yorker: The Controversial Floodlights Illuminating New York City’s Public-Housing Developments

Strengthening Public Housing Community With Cooking

Shared cooking can be great fun if you don't take yourselves too seriously.

This is part of a series about community. Growing and sustaining a community brings benefits to the participants, provides a means of personal development and builds hope and resilience. It can also smooth the path to build more liveable, life-fulfilling housing for people with very low and no incomes. For more on the series, try: Building More Housing By Strengthening Community


Deepa Gupta had just moved in to her new home in Melbourne, Australia when her building was surrounded fences and police as part of a COVID-19 lockdown1 Deepa was terrified. As a new resident, she had no community connections.

Enter Nagat Abdalla, a health concierge2. Also locked down. Also looking for ways to strengthen connection between residents.

The outcome? Once lockdown lifted, there were picnics. And now there’s a cookbook. The residents are buoyed up by the success of their initiative. Read more at THE AGE: Kitchen connection: How a cookbook helped locked down public housing residents heal

The U.S. Housing Crisis: Democrat Rot? Republican Rot? Both!

Critics of UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's international political influence have been howling in the wilderness for 30 years. Is it time for a change?

Conservative rot, or Labour rot in the U.K.? Conservative rot or Liberal rot in Canada? And so on. The question bears repeating with a change of political party names in British-influenced governments around the world.

ALL these major centrist parties have been influenced by the fascinating and magnetic policies of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative U.K. government between 1975 and 1990. These “small government” policies elevated the importance of unfettered free enterprise and diminished the role of “big government.” They have become known as neoliberalism.

This international perspective can help lift discussions to a more practical realm. It is particularly true of the current state of political affairs in the U.S., where Democrats and Republicans snarl, bark and bare their fangs nose to nose on opposite sides of securely (we hope) locked gates.

Thatcherite policies have seduced virtually all aforementioned centre-right and centre-left political parties across a range of parliamentary democracies. America just happened to have a Republican Party coincident with Thatcher’s conservatives1. Get over yourselves, Republicans and Democrats: that coincidence did not make neoliberalism a solely Republican policy.

It is the small-fry further-leftist voices howling ineffectually in the wilderness that may have a more meaningful perspective — the Canadian New Democratic Party, for example, which is happy to lump dominating neoliberals, centre-left and centre-right, into the same bag.

Thus, the following article can be more usefully read, not from the perspective suggested by its title, but as one contrasting centrist neoliberal “small government” polices with contrasting, often historic, “big government” policies. NOT Republican versus Democratic polices. Read More in CityWatch: The Housing Crisis Reveals How Much the Democrats Have Adopted Republican Policies

Social Housing “Asset Recycling”: Privatization In Thin Disguise

Under new management: "It's all about you," promises your next, entirely selfless, housing manager.

There has been a hopeful inclusion of new kinds of “infrastructure” in Democratic proposals to shore up 21st century necessities. Beyond 19th and 20th century physical requirements for a healthy and vibrant society (clean water, electricity grids, highways, etc.), American federal lawmakers are considering the importance of social supports such as child care, and a broader range of physical necessities that have become a foundation of modern society.

Some are calling for designating public housing as infrastructure to provide essential support for low and no income citizens in a commodified housing market.

How to pay for the refurbishment of both centuries-old infrastructure needs, and as well a range of newly-recognized necessities for a healthy American society? It would seem to be an important American responsibility. After all, defining housing as an essential chunk of infrastructure is almost the creation of an American “right.” E.g. everyone has a right to live their lives with electricity, or sewage. Presumably, endorsement of public housing as infrastructure tacitly embraces it, too, as a national “right.”

A broadened vision of infrastructure new and old adds up to an enormous bill for refurbishment. Where does the money come from? One proposed method for finding the money has achieved a certain popular status. It’s known as “asset recycling,” first appearing with this particular label in Australia.

At first glance “asset recycling” suggests a new way of thinking about social housing-type supports for low and no income citizens. A second glance, however, reveals that some kinds of asset recycling are already alive and kicking in the public housing universe.

In particular, Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) has morphed gradually from a supposed test experiment (“D” for Demonstration) into a full blown sell-off of public housing responsibilities to private enterprise.

The government attitude is that “sell-off” is not at all what is happening, an analysis greeted with much eye-rolling and world-weary sighs from housing activists.

Currently, the U.S. Senate is undermining government “privatization denial” by actively endorsing “asset recycling” as a means of paying for the necessary revitalization of American infrastructure. Like the critics of RAD, critics of “asset recycling” are at pains to expose the real nature of a supposedly new money-raising racket. Read more in Mother Jones:  Senators Want to Pay for Infrastructure With “asset recycling.” That’s Just a Fancy Term for Privatization.

Housing For All: Have We Abandoned The Will To Plan Utopia?

Cottages in Welwyn Garden City in England, planned as a confluence of two planning ideals in 1920: a Garden City, and a New Town.

In a dog eat dog housing world, those who can afford housing compete in a low-choice social universe that offers the suburban dream home sprawl versus gentrified shoe box living. Those who can’t afford to compete get pushed towards the leftovers, whatever they are, and wherever anything is available — a fate that increasingly includes no housing at all.

The architecture journal Archdaily decries the lack of innovation in a free-enterprise competitive universe of tooth-to-tooth snapping dogs. The publication proposes some examples from earlier times that offer alternative and attractive visions of how social cooperation can more effectively and attractively shelter a population together.

Read more in ArchDaily: We Already Have Viable Models for Quality Affordable Housing

“NUMBY” Politicians Too Quick to Hear NIMBY?


If there’s anything that everyone agrees upon, it’s the inevitability of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). When the issue of new housing in a neighbourhood arises, almost nothing satisfies those activists who would mount the battlements and defend the neighbourhood from the horrors of change.

And what is the harshest reality of NIMBY that everybody in the housing business knows to be particularly devastating? A discovery that the proposed incomers — those who will occupy the new housing — will be on the lower end of the income scale. What hellscape awaits?

But what if NIMBY activists manning the battlements have it wrong about neighbourhood attitudes?  Suppose local politicians have it wrong, too — those who, on behalf of the neighbourhood citizenry, fight to preserve what now exists, and which should ever should remain so?

Unlikely? Maybe not so much as one might think. Read more in the Irish Times:  Irish Times poll: Majority would be happy to see new housing nearby

. . . and in New Zealand’s Stuff: Tale of two suburbs in reaction Kāinga Ora’s latest Hamilton housing plan

New Housing Next Door: Does It Kill Me or Cure Me?

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Housing owners are rightfully concerned about how neighbourhood changes will influence what is probably their greatest investment — their home. Housing renters also have an indirect concern. If the landlord’s fortunes change because of neighbourhood change, will it impact my rent?

With pressure on cities to find more room for more citizens, changing by-laws are often allowing more housing in a neighbourhood. That might be viewed as a boon, or as a threat. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) neighbourhood defence associations prefer to keep things as they are, resisting any, and often all, changes.

In the U.S., a movement that has adopted the term YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) sees the building of new housing in a neighbourhood as a positive event, no matter what kind of housing. From luxury single family homes to social housing housing highrises, all can have a positive effect.

From the point of view of an existing owner, or even a renter, exactly what influence will new housing in the neighbourhood have on prices? Will new housing replace existing housing, or add to the number of homes in the neighbourhood? Will it be free market housing, or housing protected from the free market — e.g. social housing?

Opinions can be strongly held and vary considerably about the factors that influence the question of housing costs. A number of studies have been done to explore the issues.

A new article by Kevin Schofield does a really useful job of unpacking the influences on the cost of housing as a neighbourhood changes. Read more in the South Seattle Emerald: What Drives The Cost Of Housing?

Understanding Racial and Spatial Inequity In The Housing Market

2101 Emerson Ave N photo by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
A fire damaged house in Minneapolis in a neighbourhood near the downtown which has experienced population growth. Since this picture was taken in 2015, the house has been renovated and reoccupied.

The Urban Institute has just released Who Owns The Twin Cities, which analyzes residential ownership patterns in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul). These communities have the largest black-white ownership gap in the U.S. The researchers sought to understand what has contributed to the gap.

The study looks at the whole housing market (ownership and rental), which provides a comprehensive view of who owns what, and what has happened to property value over time. For example

  • The stock with the most gain in value is housing in predominantly black neighbourhoods. However, despite this gain, the stock still has a lower value than houses in predominantly white neighbourhoods.
  • Corporate investor/buyers have been purchasing rental housing in neighbourhoods that have a majority black population. The value of this stock has grown substantially, compared to ownership housing in all neighbourhoods (white majority and black marjority).
  • Corporate inverstor/buyers have also been purchasing detached homes and operating them as rental housing. This practice is far more common in neighbourhoods where the majority of residents are black, than in ones where white owners are in the majority.

The authors recommend actions at the local, state and national level to change the identified patterns. These include actions to limit the impact of corporate buyers and to support and increase black home ownership (pp. 35 through 37).

The research provides a good methodology for understanding racial inequities in a local housing market and may be useful for other researchers. The methodology is also useful for planning targetted programs to protect affordable private rental accommodation as well as to help renters who are facing the biggest affordability challenges.

Why does this matter?

Why does research about ownership appear in a blog that is mainly interested in homelessness and people who are precariously housed? Here are some thoughts:

  • This research looks at changes in ownership in the years following the 2008 mortgage crisis. This crisis made some homeowners homeless and others become renters. As more renters poured on to the market, it put upward pressure on rents. The crisis was also an opportunity for investors to scoop up foreclosed homes. The rents for foreclosed homes are typically higher than the former owner’s mortgage payments. Tenants, even those living in the homes they used to own, are now paying more for their housing than they were as owners. The net effect of this shift in the housing market is more renters, including more renters who are struggling to hang on to their housing.
  • The research looks at neighbourhoods that had been in decline and then experienced a turnaround in house values. This pattern is associated with gentrification. Within these neighbourhoods, the research tracked the rents of older multi-unit buildings (apartments and ‘plexes’) that historically had had low rents (naturally occuring affordable housing). It also looked at changes in ownership in these buildings. The purchasers were typically large institutional investors from outside the community. The changes in ownership are linked to substantial rises in rent, rendering existing tenancies more precarious.
  • The research demonstrates that a significant number of purchases by institutional out-of-state investors were underwritten by Fannie Mae, a Government Sponsored Enterprise that was set up to help individual households access home ownership1. This demonstrates how an insitutional system is making housing harder to hang on to, especially for people with very low and no incomes.
  • The research offers plausible explanations for people who are black, indigenous and latinex being disproportionately represented among people who are homeless and people at risk of losing their housing.
  • Although Minneapolis and St. Paul were the focus of the research, the patterns uncovered might well be present in other communities. The report presents a sound methodology for exploring these issues.

Read more at the Urban Institute: Who Owns The Twin Cities?

Can Lackadaisical California Fix Homelessness Without New Housing?

Construction 012807 photo by schnaars is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Another California home rises, proudly constructed by private industry. Too bad private enterprise by itself will never catch up with the state's need for housing.

Why is California’s lackadaisical approach to homelessness worth a worry to other jurisdictions as well as its own?

Many other cities in North American and elsewhere have bumbled into the same haphazard approach as California has, and can well examine that state’s particular problems with an eye to improving things locally. The article linked below takes a long look at how California has gradually stumbled into its nation-beating homeless crisis.

Homelessness can, not surprisingly, be dealt with by creating more homes. However, this is expensive. New York City, with a state court ruling giving all citizens a right to shelter, has taken the tack of providing more shelter in the cheapest possible way, by developing a shelter system.

This provides its neediest citizens with the kind of dormitory life where it’s now possible for a child to be born, grow up, go to school, reach adulthood and grow old in a shelter setting.

That’s the far-too-communal lifestyle that has over the years sent shivers up an down the spines of the millions who have explored the socialist dystopian future set out in the novel 1984. Our non-fiction reality has taken its time to catch up with that future, but with an elastic, ever-expanding shelter system, New York City is well on its way to doing so.

As for building individual homes for individual families, that’s unfortunately really expensive. Over the past few decades, in America as well as elsewhere, the challenge has been left to the private construction industry. That conglomeration of business corporations has, for its own perfectly sensible profit needs, failed to keep up with demand. And there are no signs that, all by itself, it ever will.

But really, why face up to the expensive reality of creating homes in such quantity that they become accessible (if not affordable) to all? Instead, it’s been far easier for governments to treat the problem, not as a housing crisis, but as a crisis of human frailty.

Too weak to survive in a dog-eat-dog world, it is conveniently judged to be a lack of moral fibre that creates a homeless person.

Pity them? Yes. Tolerate them? Only up to the point they are considered a nuisance. That smallish problem is easily to be solved by simply moving them along. Nuisance today, gone tomorrow.

But they aren’t really gone, are they? In America, California leads the way towards this profoundly obvious discovery. Read more in National Public Radio’s take on a crisis now identified by polls as the biggest single worry shared by citizens in that state. Read more at NPR: How California Homelessness Became A Crisis

County Level Data Available To Help U.S. Decision Makers

A county map of the United States

Data geeks have something really special to celebrate in the link attached to this post.

Researchers at the Urban Institute in the U.S. have gathered, organized and published a massive amount of data about racial equity, housing precarity and COVID vulnerability.  The first point of contact is an interactive map that provides information at a county level.

It’s also good to see that the researchers are transparent about their data sources and the assumptions they’ve used to compile measures. Data and assumptions have been used to perpetuate discriminatory practices in the past. Anyone considering using the information will be able to undertake their own evaluation of how the data is assembled.

This data, which is gathered at a national level, does not tell the whole story, even when it’s provided at such a micro scale. However, it could be something to help policy makers, program planners and decision makers who are faced with distributing COVID emergency response funding in order to reach the people who need it most.

See more at the Urban Institute: Where to Prioritize Emergency Rental Assistance to Keep Renters in Their Homes

Strengthening Community: Getting Vaccinations To People Who Might Miss Out

Ouch! photo by Kathryn Deiss is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is part of a series about community. Growing and sustaining a community brings benefits to the participants, provides a means of personal development and builds hope and resilience. It can also smooth the path to build more liveable, life-fulfilling housing for people with very low and no incomes. For more on the series, try: Building More Housing By Strengthening Community


Suganthine Sundaralingam is a great strength in her community. When she moved to a Toronto Community Housing Corporation building in Scarborough 13 years ago, she started a conversation circle with her neighbours who were learning English. Not only did they get to practice their conversational skills, they also got to know and support each other.

When COVID arrived in Toronto, Sundaralingam was well positioned to help out, acting as a Community Ambassador. She functions as a bridge between the official instructions, which have changed enough times to make your head spin, and residents who are living in neighbourhoods with high infection rates. Sundringham is one example of a network of Community Ambassadors who are working in priority neighbourhoods across the city.

Right now, she’s reaching out to residents to encourage them to get vaccinated. This is important because people in Ontario can be vaccinated even if they are not covered in the public health insurance system. She is also helping people to navigate the booking system and the transportation service that ferries people to vaccination clinics and back home again. In addition, she’s identifying people who need to receive their vaccination at home.

Sandaralingham is a great ambassador because she has consistently worked to strengthen her local community. To read more about how she does it, check out The Local: Community Ambassadors Are the Link to Toronto’s Unvaccinated Populations

Canadian Initiatives To End Youth Homelessness Earn UN Recognition

Peer support is a key to preventing and ending youth homelessness.

The United Nations Economic Commission For Europe (UNECE) has just recognized the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness as a Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness1. The Observatory, along with A Way Home Canada and Making the Shift have been collaborating to figure out ways to prevent and end youth homelessness.

As a Centre of Excellence, these organizations will be sharing information and research across the 56 member states of the UNECE. It will also promote best practices. This includes its groundbreaking research about Housing First For Youth2 and reporting on real time testing of promising practices to prevent homelessness among young people 3.

The Observatory has also supported international initiatives of non-member nations that host programs. Research on Housing First For Youth enabled the insights and voices of lived experience to inform program planning. For example, young people with experience of homelessness are now more directly involved in program delivery, as peer support workers.

Young people with experience of homelessness in Canada and Nicaragua have created resources to assist other youth who are currently homeless. You can see some examples of these resources at the Homeless Hub: By Youth For Youth Initiative

The Centre of Excellence will also act as a catalyst for change, engaging governments to put youth homelessness and homelessness prevention on policy agendas. The child protection system in Canada sheds light on the kinds of thing that need to change and the processes to engage governments.

As currently structured, all children in Canada age out of the child welfare system when they reach the age of majority (18 or 19 depending on the province or territory). This precipitous change frequently plunges young people into poverty (working minimum wage jobs or receiving social assistance, both of which are well below the poverty line).

Once they age out, youth are also barred from reaching out to previous support networks for help. Without access to these resources, young people aging out of care often experience homelessness. To prevent this from happening, researchers have recommended that the age of majority exit be replaced with a process that supports a more gradual transition to adulthood. These studies go back more than 30 years, but so far, nothing has changed.

The arrival of COVID presented a unique opportunity. With the support of the Observatory and others, people with experience of the care system came together, calling on provincial and territorial governments to temporarily halt aging out of care provisions. Governments were receptive in most cases. Moving forward, a coalition of interested groups and people with experience is now working on a framework for reforming the aging out of care process. There’s an interesting discussion about this work at the Homeless Hub: Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness Prevention in Canada

These examples are just a hint of the wide range of resources, tools and strategies that have been nurtured under the auspices of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. The designation as a Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness is well deserved. Bravo!

Mapping A Route To End Domestic Violence In Canada

Past time for a permanent sunset on domestic violence.

When you’re tackling something as complex as domestic and gender-based violence, it’s helpful to have a roadmap. Women’s Shelters Canada and others have just completed a Roadmap for the Nation Action Plan in Canada.

Ideas about domestic and gender-based violence have evolved considerably since the first violence against women shelters were opened in the 1970’s. The scope of who is affected has widened considerably1. The Roadmap reflects this wider thinking. The term “domestic and gender based violence” is used throughout the Roadmap and in this post.

In Canada, the primary responsibility for violence against women programs rests at the provincial/territorial level. The supports that are offered vary from one province or territory to another. Within these political districts, some areas are better served than others.

While this post was being prepared, new research about homelessness among women, girls and gender-diverse people has become available. A team from five Canadian universities surveyed agencies providing services to women, girls and gender diverse people. The report is based on responses from 107 agencies (data gathering was suspended when COVID required agencies to implement widespread modifications in their service provision). There is a high degree of consistency in the responses on several points.

For example, women are more likely to be among the hidden homeless. Homeless counts place an emphasis on people who are living rough and people who are staying in shelters. This means existing data overlooks homelessness among women, girls and gender diverse people, starting with the number of people who are affected. The report of the survey results is accessible at the Homeless Hub: Exploring the presence of gender-based approaches to women’s homelessness in Canadian communities.

To the extent that there is enough information to understand what’s going on, there are also some groups within the population who are better served than others. White women are better served than racialized groups, indigenous people, LGBTTQ2S2, recent immigrants and refugees.

Since many of these groups overlap each other, it’s hardly surprising that someone experiencing gender-based violence who is a recent immigrant, bisexual and living in a rural community can expect little in the way of support from publicly funded-services, at least as things stand now.

The Roadmap contains specific actions to provide safe spaces for people experiencing violence. These include more emergency accommodation, more transitional housing with supports and more permanent housing that will be affordable for the people experiencing violence, regardless of their income. The Roadmap also addresses the absence of such spaces in rural and remote communities and populations who are less well served.

The Roadmap also reports that domestic and gender-based violence is rising. Managing the COVID-19 emergency is a factor, but like the housing crisis, gender-based violence was on the rise around the globe even before the pandemic. A personal story from Australia confirms this trend over a 30 year time span. The author also notes the failure of public services to keep up. Read more in The Guardian: Social housing rescued me when I fled domestic violence in 1970s Australia. That safety net has long gone

The authors of the Roadmap see a tremendous opportunity to fulfill government promises to end domestic and gender-based violence as the country begins to emerge from the COVID emergency. They have posted it, along with a call for a campaign to implement their document: Roadmap for the National Action Plan

Exploring the presence of gender-based approaches to women’s homelessness in Canadian communities.