Heartbeats: How Together Against Poverty Society’s new executive director is pushing for systemic change in housing affordability in Victoria and beyond
Meet the new director of Together Against Poverty Society
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: faced with the ever increasing cost of rent and a housing market in crisis, a young professional is forced to move out of the city in the hopes of making a living elsewhere.
It’s the story of numerous Canadians everywhere—unaffordable housing and dwindling vacancy rates have become the norm. It’s also the story of Doug King, the newly appointed executive director of Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), whose family was squeezed out of Vancouver where he worked as a policy accountability lawyer for Pivot Legal Society in the Downtown Eastside.
“It was classic Vancouver, just being priced out,” King says.
Following a move to Victoria in the summer of 2017 for a “cheaper and quieter way of life,” King started working remotely for Pivot out of the TAPS office. The Victoria society provides free, face-to-face legal advocacy for people with income assistance, disability benefits, tenancy issues, and assists more than 5,000 people each year.
It was around that time that the BC NDP was looking for new hires to fill ministry positions in its new government. When Kelly Newhook, TAPS’ former executive director, was asked to work for the Ministry of Tourism, King saw an opportunity.
“It was really good timing that I just happened to be here,” he says.
To find out where he sees TAPS moving forward, Megaphone caught up with King at TAPS’ downtown Victoria office to talk about his new position, the challenges of a growing housing crisis, and reasons to be optimistic for the future.
Looking at the bigger picture
With a vacancy rate of 0.5 per cent, the demand for TAPS’ services in Victoria is significant. King says TAPS staff are so busy, they have multiple days in which they’re just calling people back.
“TAPS has a huge commitment to service delivery in the community, and making sure that commitment stays steady, and that in this transition period we don’t drop anything that we’ve been able to do [is important],” he says.
One of the challenges that he and the rest of the society face, then, is making sure a balance is struck between taking care of the individual cases that come up every day and the systemic “bigger picture” issues.
“I think that’s one of the legacies that Kelly had,” King says. “She was all about growing the advocacy base here at TAPS … So my goal, and I think the staff are really motivated to do this as well, is to start building in that systemic piece more and more into our work.”
To that end, the Victoria Tenant Action Group (VTAG) was formed with the goal of organizing people to take on the necessary systemic work and advocacy. The group had a public launch in October, and has since organized community events educating people on their legal rights as tenants, with more to come in the future.
“We can do individual advocacy,” King says, “but there’s also VTAG there to organize and start lobbying and talking about how do we make systemic changes to affordability.”
One of the things King says TAPS is trying to push for is the provincial government to bring in rent controls, and even potentially take certain sections of the housing market off the market entirely. He cites recent legislation to close a fixed-term tenancy loophole in the Residential Tenancy Act—that critics said allowed landlords to bypass rent controls—as a step in the right direction by the new government.
“That’s not to say that the system isn’t still very vulnerable to bad landlords abusing it and using the multiple other provisions of the Act in bad faith and evict somebody,” King says. “A small percentage of landlords are using the lack of enforcement in the law to completely take advantage of vulnerable people.”
A shift in perspective
Addressing housing affordability, King says, needs to go beyond simple legislation, and requires a complete reorientation of how we view housing rights.
“We’re still not able to have the hard discussions that we need to have, which is whether or not housing should be a commodity in the first place,” King says. “Why are we allowing these principles of capitalism to completely override one of the most fundamental things in our society, which is that people need shelter to survive?”
Much of the difficulty in having that discussion comes down to a generational difference. “It’s undeniable. It's been hard to talk through the perspective difference and generational shifts.
Certainly the younger generation doesn't view property in the same way because we don’t have access to it as a commodity the way the older generation did.”
While King acknowledges that the one-on-one support TAPS provides is critical, he says the demand for their services is “shocking,” and that the burden needs to be shifted back to the government so that fewer people fall through the cracks.
“It’s turned to the non-profit community to help people,” King says. “It’s frustrating to see that happen over the years, because it creates this system where it’s not about the government helping low-income people anymore; it’s all about low-income people having to help themselves.
“Unless there’s some fundamental changes to how the system responds to these ongoing crises, we anticipate we’ll be busy for a long time.”
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