Housing Justice Project puts affordable lodging and legal advocacy into action

Published in The Tyee | May 30, 2013 | Circulation: 800,000

Affordable housing is a recognized human right, say legal advocates, but too many residents of B.C. are unable to exercise that right, or even access the legal system as tenants.

UBC law professor Margot Young will address the right to housing, in particular for Vancouver’s women and girls, at a major conference today, Engaging Women, Transforming Cities.

“For anyone concerned about building a just city, this is really a critical conversation to be a part of,” Young told The Tyee Solutions Society. “Housing is such a central issue.

“Our focus is to look at housing justice — that is, to understand housing as a right… It’s not a question about what’s happening with the housing bubble, prices, or market mechanisms. It’s looking at what kinds of policies, programs, laws, and regulations, ought to be in place to ensure that everybody who lives in Vancouver has decent housing.”

Young is a co-founder of the Housing Justice Project, a unique collaboration between UBC’s law and community planning departments, Pivot Legal Society, and the Canadian Rental Housing Coalition.

The project hopes to educate the public and explore solutions to the housing crisis by advocating for residents’ legal rights, engaging the community, and developing policies to address increasingly unaffordable living.

“In B.C., there is a real lack of access to justice for tenants,” said Darcie Bennett, campaign director with Pivot Legal Society. “There’s little legal support for housing.

“There used to be poverty law clinics here, but all that is now missing here in B.C.; it has been eroded over the last decade. . . For marginalized renters, it’s pretty much impossible to figure out what to do and how go though the process of disputing an eviction or landlord harassment. Even when an order is made, there is not a lot of enforcement to get money or resolve it quickly.”

On May 28, the City of Vancouver announced it would grant $8,000 to continue running a Residential Tenancy Branch to support Downtown Eastside residents, based out of the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society (ACCESS) on Main Street.

Unlike other approaches which view housing primarily through the lens of real estate, municipal zoning, or social welfare, for example, the Housing Justice Project is attempting to create a niche in the legal system, and the community, for positive change to happen.

Funded by UBC’s Peter Wall Solutions Initiative, which hopes to join academics with community groups to work for social change, the project held its first public event in February: a showcase of films about housing struggles, made by local youth.

When viewed through a legal perspective, Bennett added, affordable lodging becomes clearly linked to other social issues and rights. But while there is much research on how to ensure peoples’ right to housing, there are few avenues to put it into practice for ordinary people, be they homeowners, tenants or the homeless.

“Seeing things through a justice lens is important, because pretty much any issue we work on relates to a housing issue, whether it’s the foster care system or addictions, housing is a big piece of it,” Bennett said. “We could fill a room with research on how important housing is as a human right; it’s all been researched to the ends of time.

“It’s about joining forces to take action on their research… to be able to use the research they’re able to do as a frame for some of the cases we take on, to say, ‘This case isn’t just about this individual, but about issues facing so many individuals who fall through the cracks.'”

Taking an intersecting and interdisciplinary approach to housing is key to addressing the housing needs of marginalized people, particularly for women and girls who are the focus of today’s conference, organized by Women Transforming Cities.

Another speaker at the event’s housing-focused panel is Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society and Atira property management, an influential Downtown Eastside nonprofit striving to end violence against women through housing, support and advocacy services.

Abbott told The Tyee Solutions Society that, when addressing the housing crisis, agencies need to work from an “anti-oppression framework” — an understanding that people face greater barriers and stigma if they are aboriginal, immigrant, sole-parents, or disabled, for instance. Poverty and gender are also key factors that affect access to safe, affordable housing.

“We need more and better housing options for women who are poor,” Abbott said in an interview. “We need more places where women who have experienced repeated incidents of trauma, likely from childhood, can have a place to be safe and to heal.

“Housing needs to be able to provide consistency and predictability across time. There also needs to be housing where there are women-headed leases. Often at Atira, we see women form relationships, often with male partners, but when those relationships go sideways, women are typically the ones who end up homeless again and have to give up their housing.”

The lack of a national housing strategy is also a bone of contention for advocates like Atira and the Housing Justice Project. But given the “severity” of homelessness and cost of living across the country, particularly in B.C., Young said, “the fault lies with all levels of government.”

“It’s a failure to observe a key human right well-recognized at the international level,” she added, “and arguably part of the kinds of protections that our own constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides.”

For Pivot’s Bennett, the right to housing cannot be left to the private sector.

“When we think about really basic needs like medical care or education, we realize there needs to be government regulation for them,” Bennett argued. “Housing is a really important basic need, and yet it has been left out of purview of government.”

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